03 December 2006

Red Cross' Irresponsibility with Blood

The Red Cross is in trouble -- again -- with the Food and Drug Administration for not following proper safety procedures with regard to processing and screening blood. This time, the FDA caught the Red Cross with blood units that had failed testing that were mixed in with blood units that had passed testing.
According to the report, it was extremely unlikely that this blood would ever have made it into a person, because there are further checks along the way. The FDA fined them five million dollars for this offence. Although that seems like a lot of money, the reporter seemed to think it was a slap on the wrist, since blood donation is a multi-billion dollar industry. The Red Cross is responsible for 40% of the blood here.
The Canadian Red Cross has gotten into trouble too. In the 1980s, the Canadian Red Cross failed to screen people adequately for HIV. As a result, according to this article on the BBC's website, over 3,000 people died because they contracted AIDS from the tainted blood. The whole report (called the Krever Report) for this is published on a website set up by Health Canada. Although HIV was not as well known then, the Canadian Red Cross should have known about the risks at the time these tainted blood donations were accepted.
The Canadian Red Cross used to be responsible for blood donation and processing in Canada. Not anymore.
When I have donated blood, I have seen potential failures in the screening process too. For example, last year when I was donating blood at the law school, I sat down with a questioner who asked me the usual questions. However, the questioner was going through the questions really fast, so fast that I was just answering no to the question without thinking. Then I said no and realized that the proper answer to that question was yes and made him go back. My "yes" did not cause me to be ineligible to donate blood, but when the questioner is asking those questions so quickly, it encourages the person donating to quickly answer the questions without thinking. The questioner should go through the questions slowly and methodically.
The questioner also thought that a "Channel Island" (with reference to the United Kingdom) was the island of Britain. Not true. The Channel Islands are Guernsey and Jersey, according to Wikipedia. The questioner's knowledge (or lack thereof) in geography did not inspire any confidence in the Red Cross's screening procedures.
Another place that I have donated blood to -- the New York Blood Center -- also asks questions, but they switch the answers so that the "right" answer to the question is sometimes yes. This catches the people who just want to answer no to every single question. The other good thing that they do is that they allow the donating person to label their blood and indicate whether they want the New York Blood Center to use it or not. The questioner turns away while the donating person does this. If the person donating labels it and asks the New York Blood Center not to use it, the blood will still be tested for HIV, etc. If the person has engaged in risky behaviour and does not want their blood to be donated for some reason, then he or she can mark it accordingly and still appear to be donating blood if there are other people around who might be peer-pressuring them into donating blood. The New York Blood Center does this -- partially -- because blood tests won't always catch HIV in the early stages.
The Red Cross (and the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank) don't do this. I think they should.
With all that being said, I think that blood donation is really important. If you can donate, you should. Although, of course, I cannot guarantee your safety, I have never heard any concerns about the safety of the donation process itself.
There's a Jewish saying "He who saves one life, it is as if he saved the world entire."
(Phew. Lots of links in this blog entry)
I heard the report about this on NPR.

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