March 31, 2002 Sunday Times (London) by Eben BlackTHOUSANDS of patients who have undergone operations could be barred from donating blood under plans being considered by the government to curb the spread of the human form of "mad cow" disease, writes Eben Black.
The ban would affect anyone who has undergone operations, transfusions or any other procedure in which they have received blood or blood products.
Health officials confirmed last night that the ban was under "active consideration" by Alan Milburn, the health secretary. An announcement is expected later this year after the health department appointed an outside adviser to look at the potential risks of contracting variant CJD. Government sources say their advice is that a "significant" risk of transmission could exist and there is little doubt that a ban will be brought in.
America has already imposed a ban on anyone giving blood who lived in the United Kingdom for six months or more between 1980 and 1996, the years when experts consider the risk of contracting vCJD to have been the highest. However, it is believed to have an incubation period of up to 40 years, and estimates of the number of people likely to die range from 200 to 500,000.
The disease, thought to be transmitted by eating beef and other products from cows with BSE, is known to have killed 113 people so far in Britain.
The proposed changes could cause problems for the supply of blood. Ministers have been warned that supplies could fall by 15% if those who have received blood or blood products are excluded from the pool of potential donors.
Some 900,000 major operations are carried out in Britain each year, although not all of these involve transfusions.
Measures to inhibit the spread of vCJD include removing white cells from blood, as some studies suggest this is where it may be carried. Milburn and his colleagues are also studying proposals to encourage patients to store their own blood, for use as necessary.
The health department has admitted that 22 patients have received blood from donors who went on to develop vCJD and may now themselves be at risk. They all received blood from one of eight donors who turned out to be carrying the disease. Medical experts are also concerned that vCJD could be passed on through instruments, as the normal sterilisation process is not believed to destroy prions, the proteins that play an active role in the disease.