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Mad Cow Fears Spur Blood Shortages

Facing fears of mad cow disease, the federal government is considering banning blood from Europe as well as rejecting donations from Americans who've spent time there. It's an action the American Red Cross has already taken at its blood banks, but at a price--a new blood shortage. More on the story from Thalia Assuras.

The latest recommendations by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have sent blood centers--especially in the northeast--scrambling for every drop.

Dr. Robert Jones of New York Blood Centers says, "Seven thousand patients per month who are currently being transfused, those types of cases will not have the blood for transfusion."

The New York area--the only place that imports blood from Europe--could lose one-third of its blood supply. Officials here say that with no scientific evidence that humans can catch mad cow from transfusions, the FDA may be going overboard

"Whatever risks might be there--we have to balance that against the risk of people not having blood in the hospitals," says Jones.

One possible solution to the shortage: a kind of artificial blood. A Massachusetts company called Biopure plans to seek FDA approval this fall for "hemopure," a blood substitute already available in South Africa.

"It's a substitute for red blood cells which carry oxygen," says Dr. Edward Jacobs of Biopure. "If there are blood shortages and there is a need such as a surgical operation that must be performed, this product could be used in place of that as an oxygen bridge until the blood becomes available."

While artificial blood doesn't clot or fight infection, it does have advantages: a 2-year shelf life versus 7 weeks for human blood, and it can be used by patients of any blood type.

"I feel great, great. I'm really glad I did it," says Herbert Kay.

Herbert Kay needed surgery for an aortic aneurysm but wanted to avoid human blood transfusion. Doctors offered him an artificial product as an alternative.

"Whenever human beings are involved, and procedures are involved, there are going to be some slip-ups. And the consequences of a slip-up and catching AIDS or hepatitis C, for example, or whatever other illnesses, was scary enough that I wanted to avoid that if at all possible," says Kay.

But it could be at least 18 months before the first artificial blood products gain FDA approval, and with restrictions on imported blood set to take effect this fall--blood centers face a looming crisis.
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