The American Red Cross, throughout its lifetime one of the nation's most respected emergency relief services, is also one of its largest independent health agencies. Among other things, its 53 blood centers collect and process 1 million containers of blood products a month, half of the nation's blood supply. It is a vitally needed resource.
But all has not been healthy in the 53 Red Cross blood centers. The worldwide AIDS epidemic caught blood bank officials everywhere flat-footed, precipitating a vociferous behind-the-scenes debate among doctors concerned about how to detect the insidious virus and stop its spread. Eventually, a "core antibody" test, used to look for hepatitis infections, was found effective for AIDS as well, but blood bank officials at first resisted its use.
The spreading AIDS epidemic, repeated hepatitis outbreaks and burgeoning cases of sexually transmitted diseases focused new attention on the nation's blood supply. Victims of the AIDS virus didn't always turn out to be people whose lifestyles put them at risk. Some were merely hemophiliacs, who contracted the disease during blood transfusions. Sufferers of other illnesses found that the virus could be transmitted along with fractional blood products from infected donors. The result was that, between 1985 and 1990, Red Cross blood centers had to carry out 100 million more tests than in the five previous years.