Blood donations curbed Gulf war veterans may carry parasite

November 12, 1991|By Mary Knudson Richard H. P. Sia of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

The Pentagon plans to announce today a temporary halt to accepting blood donations from Persian Gulf war veterans because of a rare parasite that 19 of them brought home.

And in an emergency session in Baltimore yesterday, the organization that oversees blood banking in the United States agreed to extend the ban to civilians who visited any of the eight Persian Gulf states since Aug. 1, 1990.

Both moves are designed to protect people receiving blood transfusions from a disease called leishmaniasis detected in a fraction of the 541,425 military people who served in the gulf.

The disease, ordinarily caused by a parasite transmitted by the bite of sand flies, usually causes skin lesions, according to Lt. Col. Jean Freitas, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense. But one form of leishmaniasis causes diarrhea, fever, chills, weight loss, anemia and can be life-threatening, she said. Seven of the 19 American cases were the severe type.

Although "the risk of contamination by blood transfusions is very slight," the spokeswoman said, Dr. Enrique Mendez, assistant defense secretary for health affairs, will order the ban to remain in effect until a screening procedure is developed to detect the parasite.

The Pentagon contacted the American Association of Blood Banks as some 7,000 of its members began their 44th annual meeting at the Convention Center on Friday.

Donald Doddridge, the association's president, said after yesterday's meeting that the blood donations ban will be extended to all civilians -- including military reservists who have returned to civilian jobs, as well as business people and tourists -- who visited Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman or Yemen. Mr. Doddridge predicted the ban would result in a shortfall of blood on military bases, which would affect the public blood supply if it eventually has to compensate for the military deficit.

A Defense Department spokesman said last night that the military would try to increase blood collections from non-gulf veterans before turning to civilian blood banks for help.

Mr. Doddridge and Dr. E. Shannon Cooper, president-elect of the American Association of Blood Banks, said they will assess the risk of leishmaniasis again in January 1993 to determine whether the ban can be lifted or should be extended.

The association is the professional society for 2,400 community, regional and Red Cross blood centers and hospital-based blood banks and transfusions services.

The association sets standards, inspects and accredits blood collections.

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