In a major expansion of the US firewall against mad cow disease, the American Red Cross now says it will begin banning blood donations from anywhere in Western Europe, not just the United Kingdom, this summer. The ban, which extends to any donor who's lived in Europe for 6 months, puts the Red Cross at odds with critics who say that the ban is too conservative and threatens the entire US blood supply. CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports.
The Red Cross, which supplies half of all blood donations in the United States, says it has no choice. Because mad cow disease has spread beyond Great Britain and because there is no blood test for the human variation of the disease, the Red Cross will decline blood donations from anyone who has lived 6 months or more anywhere in Europe.
"We believe this poses a risk that we do not believe we should take," says Bernadine Healy, MD, president of the American Red Cross and a medical consultant to CBS News. "We don't want to frighten anyone. We are not saying this is a high risk or a low risk. All we are saying is there is a risk out there."
The Red Cross decision, however, would affect people in New York City. The city imports one-fourth of its donated blood directly from Europe. The blood is not from Americans who've lived there, but from European donors who give New York 3,000 units a week to make up for the city's shortfall.
Without this supply, says Robert Jones, MD, head of the New York Blood Center, "We would have a medical care crisis." Losing 25% of blood donations would close emergency rooms, delay surgeries, and put patients in real danger, Jones says. He is not sure the precaution of turning away European blood is worth it, especially when the risk of getting mad cow from human blood hasn't been proven.
"You have to ask yourself when you are weighing these risks and dangers, 'Which is the greater risk and danger?'" says Jones.
The disagreement between the Red Cross and New York will soon be settled by the Food and Drug Administration, which will set a national policy on the exclusion of blood donors.
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