Saturday, June 01, 2002

Remote mad cow danger cuts blood-donor pool

Fears lead to tighter rules on donations

By Tim Bonfield,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In the midst of a Tristate blood shortage, Hoxworth Blood Center now faces turning away would-be donors over fears about a disease that has never been linked to a blood transfusion.

        On Friday, new federal restrictions kicked in that establish lifetime bans against donating blood for several groups of people who spent extended time in Europe. The rules are intended to protect the blood supply from possible contamination from mad cow disease.

    According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, effective Friday, the following groups will be “permanently deferred,” or banned, from ever donating blood:
    • Anyone who lived in the United Kingdom for three months or more from 1980 to 1996.
    • Military personnel (current and former) and their dependents who spent time in military bases in northern Europe or southern Europe for six months or more, from 1980 to 1996.
    • Anyone who lived in France for five years or more since 1980.
    • Anyone who received a blood transfusion in the U.K. since 1980.
    Source: Hoxworth Blood Center
        Hoxworth, which started enforcing the rules on Wednesday, expects to lose up to 5,000 people from its annual donor base of about 45,000, said Hoxworth spokesman Michael Anderson.

        The restrictions take effect even as Tristate residents respond to an emergency appeal for blood made earlier in the week. Mr. Anderson said the special drive will continue for several days.

        Among those permanently banned from giving blood: anyone who lived in Great Britain for three months or more from 1980 to 1996 and any military personnel (current and former) and their dependents who spent six months or more on military bases in northern or southern Europe in those same years.

        Scientists say a few people in Europe may have caught a human version of mad cow disease, known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, by eating tainted beef. The first U.S. case was reported in April, involving a 22-year-old British woman who may have contracted the illness from eating beef in Britain.

        There is no evidence of a single case, worldwide, occurring after a blood transfusion. While few can argue against protecting the blood supply, Hoxworth officials say, these “extremely conservative” restrictions to prevent a theoretical risk more likely will increase the not-so-theoretical risks of depleting the blood supply.

        For several years, Hoxworth and many other blood banks nationwide have struggled to keep up with demand for blood.

        Even before the mad cow rules, few people enjoyed donating blood. So almost any reason was enough to skip the experience.

        Fear of needles. Fear of the sight of blood. Fear of catching a disease. The time involved. The slight pain involved. Past bad experiences with feeling faint or encountering unpleasant staff.

        In a given year, the 45,000 people who give blood through Hoxworth comprise less than 3 percent of the Tristate population. However, that often isn't enough.

        Many times per year, Hoxworth winds up buying units from other blood banks because local supply falls short of local demand.

        It happens when donations dip around holiday weekends or bad weather and when a few closely spaced organ transplants, car wrecks or crime injuries trigger a surge in demand.

        Hoxworth is urging people to call the blood bank to double-check whether they will be banned under the new rules.

        “We don't want people to self-defer,” Mr. Anderson said. “We want them to call our nurses or come in to verify their status.”

        For information about donating, call 451-0910 or (800) 830-1091.

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