Mad cow case unlikely to affect blood donations

Also, no practical way to exclude suspect donors

December 28, 2003|By DENVER POST

When thousands of cattle fell sick from mad cow disease in the United Kingdom and a growing number of people became infected from the human equivalent of the disease, American authorities barred blood donations from people who had spent months in Britain during that epidemic.

A single case of mad cow confirmed this month in Washington state is unlikely to prompt a repeat of those aggressive protection measures. The risk of mad-cow-tainted blood seeping into the nation's supply from American donors is minimal, officials said. And, for now, there is no practical way to exclude suspect donors without reducing blood donations to a trickle.

"I don't see how a donor-deferral criteria could be applied to the U.S.," said Dr. Kenrad Nelson, a Johns Hopkins University professor who is chairman of the Food and Drug Administration's Blood Products Advisory Committee. "The way beef is transported and mixed with other beef, there's probably no way they can even trace the meat from that one animal. ... You can't assume it was consumed in Washington state. It could be New York. Or Maryland. Or Denver."

The American Red Cross, which supplies nearly half of the nation's blood, had no comment on excluding Washington state blood donors, said spokeswoman Lesly Hallman. The agency intends to "follow the guidance of the FDA," according to a statement on its Web site.

That federal guidance is unlikely to come unless a mad cow epidemic occurs in Washington or there is firm confirmation the fatal disorder can be spread by blood donations, said Dr. Harvey Klein, chief of the department of transfusion medicine at Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center in Maryland.

"I think that it is too early for any kind of conclusions about the need to change policy," said FDA spokeswoman Lenore Gelb. "Certainly, we have strong measures in place to protect the blood supply."

The FDA uses donor exclusions to help prevent the spread of blood-borne pathogens for which diagnostic tests don't exist or don't work reliably in blood. For example, at least 18 percent of military personnel - normally reliable and repeat blood donors - cannot donate because of possible mad cow exposure during past assignments to European bases. Also, troops returning from Iraq will face a one-year waiting period before being allowed to donate blood for fear that they were exposed to a parasitic disease spread by sand flies.

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