BlaineIt is safer to receive a blood transfusion or blood product today than ever before in history, owing to the efforts and vigilance of countless health care professionals from biomedical research scientists to blood center phlebotomists. Each year, an estimated 4.5 million Americans receive donated blood or blood products. Blood saves lives.

The legacy of those who lost their lives or good health from receiving tainted blood has also served to save lives into the future. As a result of lessons hard-learned from the AIDS crisis in particular, public health officials approach new threats to the nation’s blood supply with a coordinated effort and an abundance of caution.

Today’s most recent emerging infectious disease is West Nile Virus. The total number of U.S. cases reported has now climbed into the thousands, and as of this writing 125 deaths have resulted across 32 states and the District of Columbia. Human-to-human transmission has been demonstrated, with three confirmed cases from blood products and one case of apparent transmission from mother to infant through breast-feeding.

Approximately 20 percent of people infected with WNV become sick with flu-like symptoms. One in 150 of those infected develop serious and life-threatening nervous system infections for which, currently, there is only supportive treatment.

The position of the FDA is that the most effective means of reducing the risk of WNV transmission by blood transfusion, if confirmed to be significant, would be to test donor blood samples for the presence of the virus through NAT, noting that the experience of HIV and HCV testing would be useful in adapting WNV methodologies to more widespread and automated use for blood screening. If needed, the FDA could use its regulatory authority to make such tests available even before licensure under an investigational new drug (IND) application.

But most importantly, a time when we enhance our safety precautions also is a time to be reminded of the importance of maintaining adequate blood supplies from which to draw. Blood centers need your type.

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Ellen Blaine