Every two seconds, someone somewhere in the U.S. needs blood. A ready supply of the vital fluid is critical for countless medical procedures. Approximately 36,000 units of red bloods cells, 7,000 units of platelets, and 10,000 units of plasma are used every day. A single victim of a car accident could require as many as 100 units of blood to survive.
There is only one place this precious, lifesaving fluid comes from — living people. Blood can only be obtained from those willing to share their own. Unfortunately, less than one in four Americans is eligible to donate. And what’s more disturbing is that even as the need for blood continues to grow, the number of people willing to roll up their sleeve shrinks every year. Only one in every 10 Americans actually gives blood.
In order to keep the blood supply as safe as possible, there is a lengthy list of reasons that can make someone ineligible to donate. Disqualifiers include illnesses, intravenous illegal drug use, low iron, and the use of certain medications. Another is travel outside of the United States. In some cases, living in or even visiting some foreign nations, especially in areas where diseases such as the Zika virus or malaria are common, can make one ineligible for months, years, or even indefinitely.
And then there’s mad cow disease.
The world first heard about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in 1986. Entire herds of cattle were slaughtered in the U.K., Ireland, France, even in the U.S. and Canada, in attempts to eradicate the fatal disease.
Things got even more grim when studies showed that BSE had crossed over to humans, resulting in a new variation of a fatal, brain-wasting disorder called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).
By the dawn of the new century, scientists realized not only were people contracting vCJD from consuming contaminated beef, it was showing up in a handful of blood transfusion recipients.
Evidence strongly indicated that the disease could be spread by transfusions. People who had no idea they were vCJD carriers were innocently donating blood, tissue, and organs. No one is quite sure how long the tiny, diseased proteins, called prions, can remain dormant. Some have suggested it could be decades before a carrier might show symptoms — if ever. But should the diseased prions ever become active, there is only one outcome: You die.
Thankfully, the risk of coming down with vCJD is very low, but it’s still there. So, the Food and Drug Administration has decided that no one who might be a carrier should donate blood.
The restrictions have eased a little in the past year or two, but as it stands, anyone who lived in the U.K. or France between 1980 and 1996, and all U.S. service members stationed on American bases in Europe during that time, remain ineligible.
Most U.S. military commissaries in Europe purchased their beef products from England, so anyone who consumed beef while there could be cursed with the disease. There were hundreds of thousands of American service members stationed in Europe over that period. All of them, and all of their family members who were with them, are banned from donating blood.
That means a huge loss for the American blood supply. Anyone who works in blood services will tell you that military members and veterans are one of the most reliable, drug-free, healthy sources of blood donation in the country. Because of a very remote possibility that a tiny handful of them could be vCJD carries, more than a quarter of a million potential blood donors are unable to give.
Those donors sure would be helpful in times like now when the U.S. is experiencing a very critical blood shortage.
My husband and I both fall into the category of the permanently banned. We lived in Italy between 1981 and 1986 while we were serving in the military. Once regular donors, we’re now ineligible.
Not only do I miss giving, but it’s pretty creepy to think that one or both of us might be carriers of a fatal, brain-eating disease. Currently, the only method to test for vCJD is to perform a biopsy or a postmortem analysis of brain tissue. No thanks.
The need for a noninvasive test to detect those guilty prions in blood is a medical priority. According to the National Institutes of Health, two research groups have developed blood tests that do just that. I recently spoke with the chief scientific researcher for one of the groups, Dr. Claudio Soto of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
His group is in the process of ensuring their blood test meets all FDA requirements. Things look good and Soto says the test should be available within the year. Once approved, it shouldn’t be any more expensive than HIV tests that blood banks perform on all donations.
That is fantastic news. Not only should all blood banks perform the vCJD test once it’s available, the federal government needs to offer it to anyone who was stationed in Europe during the scare.
That would not only enable hundreds of thousands to donate blood again, it would be really nice for potential carriers to know we have one less brain-wasting disease to worry about.