Gov't Readying Blood Donor Ban

Friday, February 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government is about to prohibit certain frequent travelers to France and Portugal from donating blood, as an extra precaution against mad cow disease, but says American Red Cross plans to ban many more donors could cause shortages.

The Food and Drug Administration and Red Cross are poised to issue dueling policies on who can give blood after traveling to or living in parts of Europe, a conflict also causing concern that it will further confuse the public about the baffling disease.

The FDA today bans donations by anyone who spent a total of six months in Britain between 1980 and 1996, when that country was the epicenter of the mad cow outbreak.

Now, as mad cow disease spreads throughout Europe, the FDA also will ban donations by anyone who lived or traveled in France or Portugal — nations considered most at risk after Britain — for a total of 10 years since 1980, the FDA's blood chief, Dr. Jay Epstein, said in an interview Thursday.

The Red Cross, which collects half the nation's blood supply, told the FDA this week that its blood banks probably will ban donors who spent just three months in Britain or one year anywhere in Europe.

Some of the nation's top mad cow experts last month rejected the Red Cross' call for those tighter restrictions, and the FDA will follow that advice.

It is legal for the Red Cross to be more strict, Epstein said. But Red Cross blood banks could not say or imply that their blood consequently is safer than pints collected by other blood banks that follow FDA standards, he warned.

A stricter ban could worsen already tight blood supplies, particularly in New York City, where 25 percent of the red cell supply is imported from certain FDA-approved European blood banks, Epstein said. The Red Cross estimates its ban would cut nationwide blood donations by 6 percent, while the FDA's standards would cut them by less than 1 percent.

``We would be seriously concerned about any safety claims and would be concerned about the supply impact,'' he said.

The Red Cross' president, Dr. Bernadine Healy, said the charity was not claiming its decision was best, but that ``we believe that we need to go, perhaps, a little further'' than the FDA's ``minimal standards.''

If the nation will not import any European cattle, Red Cross blood banks should follow a similar donor policy, she said. The FDA instead is setting blood policy according to individual countries' level of mad cow risk.

``All we're saying is we're following our best medical judgment in the face of scientific uncertainty. They're making a judgment. We're making a judgment,'' Healy said, adding that she is confident her organization can find replacement donors.

Mad cow disease seems to spread to people through eating infected beef. There is no proof yet that it or its human counterpart spreads through blood. But how to protect the blood supply in case the disease eventually hits the United States and proves a real threat is controversial.

Competing blood banks fear patients will perceive the Red Cross policy as safer and thus they will have to follow suit, risking shortages by turning away longtime donors like military families.

There will be ``concerns on the part of patients because they need the blood and they don't understand this ... theoretical risk,'' said Dr. Celso Bianco of America's Blood Centers, which provides the other half of the blood supply.

The FDA issued the British blood donor ban last year, citing tens of thousands of British cattle infected with ``bovine spongiform encephalopathy'' in the late 1980s and early 1990s and BSE's spread, through infected beef, to 91 Britons so far.

With the crisis now Europe-wide, FDA's scientific advisers last month recommended banning donations by people who spent a total of 10 years since 1980 in Portugal, France and Ireland, calling those the countries of most concern to date but settling on the long cutoff because even their risk is believed lower than Britain's.

The FDA will ``as soon as feasible'' formally notify blood banks that it will follow the France and Portugal recommendations, but decided Irish-traveling donors are not enough of a concern, Epstein said.

BSE has not been found in American cattle. Americans can suffer a similar brain illness called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but regular CJD has not been linked to food and no Americans have been diagnosed with beef-linked ``new variant CJD.''


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