Docs: mad-cow scare may break blood bank

Docs: mad-cow scare may break blood bank

May 22, 2001 The New York Post by Hallie Levine

The FDA, fearful of mad-cow disease, may ban even more people from giving blood - possibly triggering a dangerous local shortage, experts warned yesterday.

"We could lose about a third of our blood supply," said Dr. Robert Jones, president of the New York Blood Center.

The Food and Drug Administration's current ban applies only to those who spent six months or more in the United Kingdom from 1980 to 1996, the height of the country's mad-cow epidemic.

But now, the agency has confirmed that it's weighing a ban on potential donors who have spent any time in Europe since 1980. And the restrictions could begin as early as this fall.

Sources say the new rules may be similar to those being implemented in September by the American Red Cross, which collects about half the nation's blood supply.

The Red Cross will bar donations from those who lived in Britain for three months since 1980 or in other European countries for six months since 1980, as well as those who have ever received a blood transfusion in Britain.

The rules will exclude about 8 percent of potential donors, according to Blythe Kubina, a Red Cross spokeswoman.

"There's no way to test [for] the human form of mad-cow disease. A person can be infected for up to 15 years before showing any signs of illness," she explained.

But some experts say tighter donor rules aren't necessary.

"It's never been proven that human mad-cow disease can be transmitted through blood," said Paul Brown, a former chairman of the FDA's advisory panel on mad cow.

"If there was no tradeoff, such caution would be prudent. But this degree of donor exclusion could trigger a serious blood shortage."

Such restrictions would cripple New York, which relies heavily on Switzerland, Holland and Germany for its blood supply.

"About 25 percent of our supply comes from Europe, and another 10 percent from New Yorkers who will become ineligible [under] the new regulations," said Jones, whose center provides about 75 percent of the local blood supply.

The Red Cross maintains it can increase its blood supply through marketing - targeting more potential donors. But local hospitals remain worried.

"Just a couple of years ago, the worst times were Labor Day weekend and the holiday week between Christmas and New Year's," said Mark Wheeler, director of the Blood Bank at New York University Medical Center.

"Now, it's become increasingly difficult to get blood in during the summer and in January."

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