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New York Health Commissioner Favors Blood Restriction

New York Health Commissioner Favors Blood Restriction

June 28, 2001 New York Times by Raymond Hernandez Raymond Hernandez

The New York State health commissioner is backing a Food and Drug Administration proposal that would restrict blood donations from people who may have been exposed to mad cow disease in Europe, her office announced today.

The decision by the commissioner, Dr. Antonia C. Novello, potentially undercuts hospital and blood bank officials in New York City who are trying to mobilize public opposition to the proposal; they fear it will worsen the region's blood shortage.

New York politicians also weighed in today with their concerns about the fate of the blood supply, but they did not criticize the F.D.A.

While the restrictions would be issued nationally, the New York metropolitan region would be the most severely affected because it is the only place in the country that imports blood from Europe, health care experts say.

But supporters of the restriction, including the American Red Cross, say it is a prudent response to the spread of mad cow disease in Europe. In fact, the Red Cross, which collects and distributes half of the nation's donated blood, intends to carry out a similar donor restriction, regardless of what the F.D.A. decides.

John F. Signor, a spokesman for the State Health Department, said today that Dr. Novello had decided to support an F.D.A. proposal to exclude blood donations from anyone who had spent five years or more in Europe after 1980. The F.D.A. proposal would also seek to prevent donations from anyone who had spent three months or more in Britain from 1980 to 1996.

The proposal is one of two controversial plans that will be considered on Thursday at an F.D.A. advisory panel meeting. The other proposal is identical to one the Red Cross is planning to adopt in September.

The second is considered more restrictive, barring donations from anyone who has spent six months or more in Europe since 1980, eliminating a host of potential donors throughout the United States, including recent immigrants and business travelers. It also would ban donations from people who have spent three months or more in Britain since 1980.

In either case, the effect would be a ban on blood imports from Europe, potentially disrupting medical care in the New York region, where one in every four pints is imported from Holland, Germany or Switzerland, according to blood center officials.

Mr. Signor said the State Health Department thought it was important that the F.D.A. give the New York region's blood banks and donors time to find alternative sources of blood before establishing a new policy.

But, he noted, the approach proposed by the F.D.A. was less restrictive than the one proposed by the Red Cross.

"We believe the proposal reduces risk substantially while moderating the loss of donors," he said of the F.D.A.'s plan.

But Kenneth E. Raske, president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, described himself as dumbfounded by the decision by the Health Department and Dr. Novello. He warned that the approaches being offered by the F.D.A. and the Red Cross would be disastrous for the region without a plan to provide an alternative blood source.

"Anything that causes a vacuum in the blood supply and causes patients to suffer and die is unacceptable," he said.

But the response from several New York politicians was far more measured. "I don't want to second guess them on the science," Senator Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said of the F.D.A. But, he added, "To take away 25 percent of New York's blood supply when we're already short causes huge problems, and they have an obligation to help us."

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani also declined to criticize the agency. "Well, I don't really have the scientific basis on which to agree or disagree with them," he said. "I assume they're doing what they feel is necessary to protect the blood supply, which already is low."

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat of New York, was also reluctant to criticize the F.D.A. But she said that the federal agency had the responsibility to help New York find an alternative blood supply. "I don't believe New York should be expected to bear this burden" alone, she said.

The federal advisory panel is expected to give its recommendation to the F.D.A. as early as Thursday. The F.D.A. is not bound by the recommendation, though it frequently follows it. A decision is likely in a few months. A third proposal, which has fewer restrictions on donors, is also on the table, but experts said it had little chance of being adopted, particularly because the F.D.A. did not adopt it when it was proposed in January.


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