Red Cross sets tougher blood donor criteria
WASHINGTON -- The American Red Cross is implementing tighter restrictions on who can donate blood, in an effort to keep the U.S. blood supply free of the human form of mad cow disease, CNN has learned.
But critics say the Red Cross is being unnecessarily restrictive and could endanger the blood supply when there's already a blood shortage.
Under the new rules, which take effect in September, people who lived in the United Kingdom for an accumulated three months since 1980 cannot donate blood. Potential blood donors who lived in other European countries for an accumulated six months since 1980 are also excluded. Finally, anyone who received a blood transfusion in the United Kingdom will be restricted from donating blood.
'Prudent' action or 'excessive' caution?
Dr. Bernadine Healy, president of the American Red Cross, said the concern comes from the fact that there's no way to test someone who has the human form of mad cow disease and the incubation period is long -- a person can be infected for five to 15 years before showing any signs of the illness.
"We think this is the prudent thing to do in the face of enormous scientific uncertainty," Dr. Healy said.
She said about 8 to 9 percent of donors -- or about 400,000 people -- would be excluded from giving blood under the new rules. The Red Cross collects about half of the nation's blood supply.
A leading expert on mad cow disease called the rules "excessive," especially given that there's a shortage of blood.
Dr. Paul Brown, a senior researcher at the National Institutes of Health, said it's never been proven that the human form of mad cow disease, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), can be transmitted through blood.
"If there were no trade off, no price to pay, this might be a legitimate thing do," he said, "But I'm told this degree of donor exclusion would cripple some smaller regional blood suppliers."
Dr. Brown is also a member and former chairman of the Food and Drug Administration's advisory committee on issues involving mad cow disease, scientifically called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
He added that there have been no new cases of the human form of mad cow disease since last year, and that almost all of the deaths have been in the United Kingdom.
"I think it's fairly clear no country in Europe is going to even approach what's happened in the UK," he said.
Steps to address shortage
He said he thinks the Red Cross is making the new rules because the FDA has charged the group with unsafe practices that have put blood recipients at risk of being infected with viruses and bacteria.
"I imagine Dr. Healy is anxious to be able to say that at least with respect to BSE there's no safer blood in the world," he said.
Dr. Healy called that "preposterous and absurd," and added that the Red Cross would change the rules once a blood test becomes available.
She also said the Red Cross has a five-point plan to increase the blood supply, including freezing blood and doing more targeted marketing to potential donors. Last year nearly 4 million people in the United States donated blood, according to the Red Cross Web site.
The new rules will be stricter than what the FDA requires of agencies that collect blood.
According to current FDA guidelines, people who spent more than six months in the United Kingdom from 1980-1996 are banned from donating blood.
Earlier this year, an FDA advisory committee recommended that anyone who spent more than 10 years in Portugal, France and/or Ireland from 1980 to the present also be barred from donating blood, but the FDA has yet to make a final decision on these expanded restrictions.
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