Mad Cow Prompts Red Cross
To Impose New Donor Restrictions
By Lisa Richwine

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The American Red Cross, one of two large blood collection agencies in the United States, said on Tuesday it would support new blood donation restrictions because of growing concerns about mad cow disease in Europe.
Mad cow cases are mounting in many European countries and U.S. officials are considering expanding their ban on blood donations by people who spent time in Britain during the height of the crisis. Experts fear people who ate tainted beef may pass the human form of the fatal disease to others who receive blood transfusions.
The Red Cross said it would back extending the ban to include France, where mad cow cases rose sharply last year, and all of Western Europe ``given the growing evidence of (mad cow disease) in those countries.''
``We must be cautious to ensure the safety of America's blood supply for vulnerable patients,'' the Red Cross, which collects about half of the nation's blood, said in a statement.
No cases of mad cow disease, known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or its human equivalent have been detected in the United States.
But there is no blood test for the disease. As a precaution, U.S. health officials prohibit people from donating blood if they spent six months or more in Britain from 1980 to 1996. A committee of outside experts that advises the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is scheduled to reevaluate the policy on Thursday.
The Red Cross suggested the committee also consider shortening the six-month time frame for people who were in Britain and extending the exposure period from 1980 to the present. Both measures would prohibit more people from giving blood.
Concern About Shortages
When the ban was announced in August 1999, blood banks raised concerns it could lead to dangerous blood shortages.
The Red Cross estimated its new proposals would reduce the current number of its blood donors by between 5 percent and 6 percent, and the group called for a national campaign to boost giving by eligible donors.
America's Blood Centers, which collects the other half of the nation's blood supply, said it would remind the FDA panel that any new restrictions would further strain the system.
``We've been seeing the worst blood shortages in this country we've ever seen in the last year, and we're concerned that if the ban is extended to other European countries, that could put us over the edge,'' Jim MacPherson, chief executive officer for America's Blood Centers, said in an interview.
Most cases of the mad cow disease have been found in Britain, where at least 80 people have died from the human version, known as new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, as well as two in France.
Much remains mysterious about the infectious, brain-wasting disease but scientists believe it is caused by proteins called prions that can mutate into dangerous forms.
Experts have been uncertain about whether humans can pass the disease through blood. A study published last September heightened concerns when scientists in Scotland said they had transmitted the disease to a sheep that received a tainted blood transfusion.

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