AIDS scare puts Eastern Europe's blood in question

November 20, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- A scandal of AIDS-tainted blood products that has panicked millions of Germans has awakened European health officials to even greater blood-supply hazards in Eastern Europe.

Partly for that reason, and partly in response to the German panic, the 27-nation European Council is organizing a summit next month of national health ministers and AIDS experts in hopes of setting new standards for handling blood and blood products.

"We're working at this very moment to try and address this issue in order to avoid something like this happening again," said Dr. Jean Emmanuel, a blood-supply expert with the World Health Organization in Geneva. He said that the meeting would be "to decide what checks and balances can be maintained for the future."

In the meantime, German health officials will be mulling whether to halt all imports of blood and blood products from former East Bloc countries (except the former East Germany, which came under West German standards with reunification in 1991).

The German panic began building in October with disclosures that a German firm, UB Plasma, had sold tainted blood plasma to some of the 80 hospitals it served in Germany and Europe. The trouble was, nobody knew who'd gotten the tainted batches of plasma or when they'd gotten them.

German health officials heightened the hysteria by calling for millions of former patients to take tests for the AIDS virus if they'd received transfusions or other blood products since the early 1980s.

Hospital patients began refusing transfusions, putting themselves in even greater danger. Others postponed needed surgery.

The panic spread through Europe as health officials in Austria, Italy and Switzerland recalled UB Plasma products from hospitals. U.S. military officials recommended tests for human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, for any soldiers and family members who'd received transfusions in German hospitals during the past 15 years.

And matters only got worse Nov. 9, when German officials announced that the blood products of a second company, Haemoplas, had been recalled from 64 hospitals, following disclosures that the company had not regularly tested its products for the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

But now rational discussion may be taking over, some officials feel.

"I think this week was really the first time in six or seven weeks where the panic has subsided, though it is obviously not gone," said Dr. Reinhard Kurth, president of the Paul Erlich Institute, which has been chosen to oversee Germany's blood supply in the wake of the government's dissolution of its own oversight board.

Dr. Kurth said that, even with Germany's problems, the greatest problem left for Europe to address is the blood supplied by the East Bloc countries.

One impetus for a ban on East Bloc imports is that some of UB Plasma's tainted products came from Romania.

But Dr. Kurth said a ban would be "politically risky . . . I am hesitant to discriminate against whole countries, especially if all of the documentation [of testing practices is] in good order."

Dr. Emmanuel and Dr. Kurth both said that Eastern Europe's problem is a matter of economics.

"The good test systems are produced in Western Europe and North America," Dr. Kurth said, "and to buy them you need hard currency, which a lot of these countries don't have."

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