Blood Supply Shrinkage Due to Mad Cow Fear

03 February 2000

By John McKenzie - ABC News

NEW YORK, Feb. 2 — Each year around this time, the blood supply hit dangerously low levels as winter storms and epidemics prevent many people from donating. 

But regional blood shortages are becoming increasingly common throughout the year. The supply is not keeping pace with demand.

Now a controversial decision by the Food and Drug Administration could limit supplies even more. The FDA says that Americans who have spent much time in the United Kingdom between the years 1980 and 1996 can no longer give blood in the United States. 

The fear? The spread of “new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease,” better known as the human form of mad cow disease.

Whether you were there as a student or you traveled on business or pleasure, if you spent a total of six months or more in the United Kingdom — England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Island — the FDA says you might be carrying mad cow disease. The risk is great enough that your blood is no longer accepted for donation. 

Possibility of Exposure to Disease

“The possibility exists that short residences in the United Kingdom and exposure to food in the United Kingdom,” says Dr. Paul Brown of the FDA Advisory Committee, “might be enough to create an infection in a visitor.”

Mad cow disease is a deadly brain illness first detected in the United Kingdom in the mid-1980s. 

Four years ago, the government there ordered the slaughter of millions of cattle to curb the outbreak. But no one knows how many people might have already eaten infected beef; how many people, unknowingly, might now be carrying the disease, which can hide in the body for more that a decade before causing sickness. 

In the United Kingdom, there have been 48 reported deaths from the human form of mad cow disease. But no reported cases in the United States and no reports of infected cows here. 

Is the FDA Overreacting? 

The decision to limit blood donations is bound to scare and confuse many Americans. But this decision is also confusing to some scientists who complain that the FDA is overreacting, that the new policy is not only unnecessary, it might do more harm than good.

One basic criticism is that there is no evidence the human form of this disease can be transmitted through blood transfusions. And none of the 48 deaths in the U.K. has been linked to the blood supply. But the FDA says that since no one can totally rule out the possibility, precautions are necessary. 

“There’s a tiny bit of science and a lot of conjecture that something like this potentially could happen,” says George Gray of the Harvard School of Public Health. “There’s nothing hard. There’s nothing sound. We don’t even know if this is a risk to worry about.” 

Need for Consistent Restrictions

Other scientists complain the safeguards are arbitrary.

The ban only applies to people who traveled to the United Kingdom, on the assumption that the longer you were there, the greater the likelihood you ate contaminated beef. 

The problem with that is many people who ate more meat, over less time, can go on giving blood.

“I think it’s not necessarily scientifically or logically based,” says Dr. Laura Manuealidis of the Yale School of Medicine, who is a leading researcher in mad cow type illnesses. “I think it’s very difficult to justify six months vs. a year or three months vs. six months, because I really don’t think we have very hard numbers.”

While there are questions about the benefits of the policy, there’s no question about its cost to people who need blood. 

The American Red Cross estimates it will reduce donations by at least 300,000 pints, or more than 2 percent of the country’s blood supply. This is in a year when there were already predictions of a national shortage. 

“Patients are going to have their surgeries put off … cardiac surgery,” warns Dr. Paul Holland of the Sacramento Blood Center. ‘I know you need your heart fixed, but maybe it can wait until next week or next month.’ Well, you might die waiting for that surgery.”

“But five years from now,” says Brown, “if one looks back and there have been half a dozen cases of disease in the U.S. from blood, there will be heads rolling.”

The FDA has set April 17, 2000 as the deadline for blood banks to begin limiting blood donations.