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Time Spent in Europe Means No More Time in the Blood Donation Center

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Experts worry that the conflicting guidelines will further confuse the public about the baffling disease.

 

Last year, the federal government banned blood donations from anyone who spent a total of six months in Britain between 1980 and 1996, when that country was the epicenter of the mad cow outbreak.

 

But with mad cow disease spreading throughout Europe, in January scientific advisers to the FDA recommended banning donations from anyone who spent a total of 10 years in Portugal, France, and Ireland since 1980. The expert panel, which included some of the nation's top mad cow experts, concluded that these countries were of most concern but said the risk there was lower than that in Britain.

 

In February, the FDA indicated it would stick closely to the recommendations of its advisers, who argued that the Red Cross' call for tighter restrictions went farther than necessary. The agency said then that it was likely to impose the ban only on travelers to Portugal and France.

 

The Red Cross, which collects about half of the nation's blood supply, is legally allowed to set stricter standards than required by the government. But its blood banks may not say or imply that their blood is safer than those collected by banks following the government standards.

 

Competing blood banks fear patients will perceive the Red Cross policy as safer and thus they will have to follow suit, risking shortages by turning away longtime donors such as military families.

 

Healy notes the Red Cross also has presented a plan to the FDA to address the shortage risks that the new rules could cause.

 

"We have an obligation to compensate for that," Healy says. She notes her organization has presented to the FDA its four-point plan to bring in more blood. First, the Red Cross will promote the use of new collection techniques that could allow double the red blood cells to be taken from a donor. Blood surpluses, when they occur, could be frozen instead of discarded, to prepare for lows. There are plans underway to encourage the existing four million annual donors to give five times yearly instead of about twice a year, and media campaigns are to be expanded to bring in new donors.

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