Why The U.S. Still Bans Blood Donations From Some U.K. Travelers

Jan 8, 2015
Originally published on January 7, 2015 6:17 pm

Rules governing who can donate blood in the United States have recently changed. But anyone who spent more than three months in the UK between 1980 and 1996 is still prohibited from donating. That rule is in place to minimize the risk of spreading Mad Cow Disease. Robert Siegel speaks with Dr. Lorna Williamson about how the risk is mitigated in the UK.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The FDA recently recommended lifting the ban on blood donations by gay men. For those gay men who've been celibate for a year and who regard giving blood as a civic act, that's good news. As for me, my blood is still disqualified, which for me is ironic. I lived in London from 1979 until 1983, and one British tradition that impressed me there was the big blood drive that drew upon British wartime memories, as well as British blood vessels. I came home a confirmed blood donor. But in this country, the Red Cross will not take blood from anyone who between 1980 and 1996 spent three months or more in the United Kingdom. It has to do with an outbreak of mad cow disease and its human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which attacks the brain. The Red Cross's reasoning is that I probably consumed beef in Britain so I might have ingested a prion - a deformed protein - that causes the disease.

So here's my question - people who spent three months in Britain between 1980 and 1996 are relatively rare in the U.S., but in Britain, they're all over the place. How do the Brits handle this problem? Joining us from Watford, England is Dr. Lorna Williamson who is medical and research director at NHS Blood and Transplant - that's part of Britain's NHS, the National Health Service. Welcome to the program.

DR. LORNA WILLIAMSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Obviously, Britain can't do without blood from all the people who lived in the U.K. when there was contaminated meat in the food supply. So have there been outbreaks of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and has anything been related to a transfusion?

WILLIAMSON: So at the moment there have been 177 confirmed cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. And we believe three clinical cases of those may have arisen due to blood transfusion in the 1990s. So 1999, the U.K. adopted a policy of filtering the white cells out of all blood transfusions because it's been shown that these cells harbor the infectious prions which cause CJD. The problem with prion disease is that they can become apparent many, many years after the person has acquired the infection, so we maintain a state of vigilance. And it's probably too soon to say there wouldn't be any more cases, either through eating beef or indeed through blood transfusion.

SIEGEL: I've read about a study in which the appendixes of otherwise healthy Britons who had had appendectomies, the tissue was studied and the prion was found in 16 out of 32,000 appendixes.

WILLIAMSON: Yes.

SIEGEL: Which would imply that possibly as many as 1 in 2,000 are carriers of this disease, of the possibility of this disease.

WILLIAMSON: Exactly, and that's quite a scary figure. And we don't know how that figure would compare if you tested the individual's blood. But the 1 in 2,000 figure is the assumption that the policymakers on blood safety use in the U.K. in setting policy. So that would therefore explain why everybody is pretty precautionary still about the possible risk of variant CJD.

SIEGEL: Is there some period in which you as a hematologist think you could sound the all-clear, that is, if you haven't seen cases among recipients of transfusions over 25 years or 30 years that perhaps the alarm is over?

WILLIAMSON: Well, that's what everyone hopes. And I think next year when we have the results of the appendix study on these young people born after 1996, we will have a better idea of whether this will be self-limiting. And when more of these people become blood donors and eventually provide the bulk of the blood supply, we can all stop worrying about this awful infection.

SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Williamson, thank you. I'm beginning to get the impression that I will never give blood again in the United States, but so be it - there's enough to go around. And thanks for explaining to us what you do over there in Britain.

WILLIAMSON: You're very welcome. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Dr. Lorna Williamson who's medicine and research director at NHS Blood and Transplant, National Health Service Blood and Transplant in Watford, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.