Mad Cow Scare Linked to Blood Shortage

Blood Industry Asks FDA to Reconsider European Exclusion

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 21, 2003 -- In 2001, in an attempt to protect the nation's blood supply from mad cow disease, the FDA banned blood donation from people who had previously lived in Europe. But blood industry representatives are appealing to the agency to lift the ban, saying that it exacts a tremendous toll on our blood supply.

Currently, donations are banned from:

  • Anyone who has lived in the U.K. for three months or longer since 1980
  • Anyone who has lived anywhere in Europe for six months since 1980
  • Anyone who has received a blood transfusion in the U.K.

Mad cow disease is a degenerative brain disease in animals. Infected animals act crazy, or "mad," displaying changes in mood such as nervousness or agitation and having difficulty standing up, and usually die within two weeks to six months. Mad cow disease seems to spread to people through eating infected beef. Some animal studies suggest that it may be possible to transmit the disease through blood transfusion, prompting concerns among blood bank and FDA officials about safeguarding the blood supply.

Scientists still don't know a lot about mad cow disease and how it is transmitted, nor do doctors have a test to screen for it.

In humans, mad cow disease is called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD. Most of the 140 vCJD cases identified so far have occurred in the U.K. The first U.S. case occurred in October 2002, but it is believed the patient contracted it while in the U.K.

Still, there is no evidence to suggest that the disease has spread through blood or blood products. "(But) the concern is that the incubation period can be quite long. Even if the risk is quite small, you might not see it in a hundred or so cases. After the experience in the '80s (with HIV transmission through the blood supply), the public expects us to do too much too soon rather than too little too late," said Peter L. Page, MD, senior medical officer at the American Red Cross.

But concerns over mad cow disease aren't likely the only factor working to slowly drain the nation's blood supply.

Following a surge of donations, blood supplies have actually dropped below the levels before Sept. 11, 2001. The reasons are varied, including negative public reaction following announcements that donated blood had to be discarded after the glut of donations.

New concerns about infectious agents such as West Nile virus, coupled with recent observations of particles in some donated blood, have led to quarantine of some blood and severe shortages in New York City, according to Richard Davey, MD, chief medical officer of the New York Blood Center.

Most of the blood supply comes from "a very small percentage of very dedicated donors," says Davey. "We are very concerned that whenever we lose a donor, we lose them for the rest of their life."