FDA to bar blood from more British, European travelers, but not until spring

Monday, August 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ By next spring, new government restrictions will bar thousands more blood donors who have lived or traveled in Britain and Europe_ a move to protect the U.S. blood supply from mad cow disease.

The Food and Drug Administration announced its long-anticipated decision Monday, giving blood banks months to prepare for the cuts _ time many have said they needed to recruit new donors and avoid worsening the nation's already tight blood supply.

Under the FDA's proposal, by May 31 blood banks would have to bar donors who:

_Have spent three or more cumulative months in Britain from 1980 through 1996. That's a tightening of today's rules, which turn away blood donors who have spent at least six months in Britain during that time, the worst of that country's mad cow outbreak.

_Have spent five cumulative years or more in France from 1980 to the present. While mad cow disease has now spread through much of Europe, it moved first from Britain to France.

_As American military personnel or dependents spent six months or more on a base in Northern Europe from 1980 through 1990, and elsewhere in Europe from 1980 through 1996. That's when British beef was sold on those U.S. bases.

_Received a blood transfusion in Britain since 1980.

The FDA put off until fall 2002 banning additional donors, those who spent a cumulative five years or more anywhere in Europe since 1980.

Also, New York imports more than 25 percent of its blood from Europe, and that practice would be banned in fall 2002, too.

The rules aren't as strict as those the American Red Cross is poised to implement next month. The Red Cross, which collects half the nation's blood supply, will refuse donations by anyone who spent three months in Britain or six months anywhere in Europe since 1980.

Experts have said the Red Cross' stricter rules could cut the number of blood donors by 9 percent, costing 750,000 units of blood in the next year. But the Red Cross disputes that, saying it should cut 235,000 units.

The FDA estimates its own restrictions will bar 5 percent of the nation's blood donors. East Coast areas would be hardest hit because they have higher populations of travelers, European immigrants and retired military personnel.

Mad cow disease is a brain-destroying illness that first surfaced in British cattle but now has spread to cattle in much of Europe.

A human form, called ``new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease,'' apparently spread by eating infected beef, has claimed more than 90 lives in Britain and parts of Europe.

Mad cow disease has never been found in U.S. cattle, and the new CJD has never been diagnosed here, although Americans can get a similar disease, regular CJD. There is no evidence the human form can spread through blood transfusions, but the FDA is restricting donors just in case.

``We are taking these steps to help protect the safety of the blood supply at a time when science does not allow us to rule out the risk,'' said Bernard Schwetz, FDA's acting commissioner.

But because the risk is purely theoretical _ while the nation's blood supply is so tight that some areas routinely experience dangerous shortages _ the FDA decided to phase in the rules.

The FDA's decision is a proposal open for public comment for 30 days; the agency expects to finalize the rules by year's end.