RED CROSS to reject blood from donors who have been in Europe

Tuesday, May 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Michael Brown has been back from London for eight years, but as far as the American Red Cross is concerned, that's not long enough to assure he didn't bring mad cow disease home with him.

Fearful that the mysterious illness could work its way into the blood supply, the Red Cross is going beyond government regulations, barring donations from anyone who has spent six months in Europe or three months in Britain since 1980.

Brown, a political scientist who lived in England for six years, said he typically gives blood about once a year and never considered that mad cow disease might be lurking in his veins.

``My friends have often wondered,'' he joked, but quickly added, ``It's not something you should joke about. It's just a horrific disease. My feeling is obviously the folks who regulate the blood supply should do whatever is necessary to protect it.''

But the protections do not come without a price. The latest tightening of the rules will cost the Red Cross an estimated 8 percent of its donors, or 400,000 per year. The new regulations go well beyond current rules and beyond what a panel of scientific advisers recommended earlier this year to the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA first acted on this issue last year, banning blood donations by anyone _ including Brown _ who has spent a total of six months in Britain between 1980 and 1996.

In January, with mad cow disease spreading throughout Europe, the FDA's scientific advisers recommended prohibiting blood donations from anyone who had spent a total of 10 years in Portugal, France or Ireland since 1980.

The expert panel, which included some of the nation's top experts on mad cow disease, concluded that these countries were of high concern, but said the risk there was lower than that in Britain. Next month, the FDA meets to determine whether to heeds its advisers or go further.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is linked to a human brain-wasting disease, variant Creutzfeld Jakob disease and is believed responsible for nearly 100 deaths in Britain since 1995.

The Red Cross said it was taking a conservative line because of the uncertainty surrounding the transition of mad cow disease to humans. There is no way to test blood for the human form of the disease, which has a long latency period.

``We don't know if this is a relatively small problem that's going to disappear or whether this could grow to be something much bigger,'' Dr. Bernadine Healy, president of the American Red Cross, said Monday.

The Red Cross rules, to take effect in September, will also disqualify those who have received blood transfusions in Britain.

Mad cow disease seems to spread to people when they eat infected beef. There is no proof yet that mad cow or its human counterpart spreads through blood. But there is controversy over how to protect the blood supply in case the disease eventually hits the United States and proves a real threat.

The Red Cross, which collects about half of the nation's blood supply, is allowed to set stricter standards than required by the FDA. But its blood banks may not say or imply that their blood is safer than that collected by banks following the FDA standards.

Competing, independent blood banks fear patients will perceive the Red Cross policy as safer, forcing them to follow suit and turn away longtime donors, like military families.

Blood is already in short supply, said Melissa McMillan, spokeswoman for their trade group, America's Blood Centers, and every new restriction on donors translates to fewer pints available for lifesaving surgeries.

``Safety also means availability, and that has to be a part of this discussion,'' McMillan said.

Healy said the Red Cross is now implementing a campaign to freeze blood when it's in abundant supply, to recruit new blood donors and to persuade current donors to give blood more often.