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Congressional Testimony: Blood Supply Safer, But Not Safe Enough

July 14, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ America could have ″much to fear in the future,″ as blood banks fail to ensure a safe, AIDS-free blood supply, witnesses told a congressional subcommittee.

But Stephen Richards, senior vice president of the American Red Cross, told reporters the United States ″has the safest blood supply of any country in the world.″

Witnesses before the panel Friday laid much of the blame on the blood industry, charging that thousands of people became infected with the AIDS virus through blood transfusions because the industry reacted too slowly to the epidemic.

Based on blood banks’ past performance, the nation could ″have much to fear in the future,″ said Ross Eckert, a member of the Food and Drug Administration’s Blood Products Advisory Committee.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, said that according to FDA inspection reports, some American Red Cross blood centers have released infected blood, mixed up records or violated AIDS testing procedures.

″The American Red Cross, which collects over half of all the whole blood in the United States, has had serious and persistent problems with its procedures for testing and keeping track of this blood,″ Dingell said.

Earlier this week, an FDA inspection report showed that the Red Cross had failed to comply with its own procedures by informing the FDA of only four of 228 cases of possible AIDS-related transfusions.

Richards dismissed criticism that the Red Cross has failed to educate the public about the spread of AIDS and has moved too slowly in instituting donor screening programs. The risk of becoming infected with the AIDS virus through a transfusion is about 1 in 40,000, he said.

″We can assure the public it (the blood supply) is safer now than ever,″ he said. ″It is as safe as it can be with medical science and testing.″

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, 3,425 transfusion- assoc iated AIDS cases had been reported to the agency as of May 1.

The Red Cross notes that only 11 of those cases have been diagnosed since blood banks began testing donated blood for AIDS in 1985.

However, it can take as long as 10 years for infection with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, to become full-blown AIDS.

The blood industry was reluctant early in the epidemic to screen high-risk donors and implement safety testing because it feared these steps ″would threaten the financial viability of a blood bank,″ said Dr. Marcus Conant, a professor at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco.

While donors give blood voluntarily and free, their blood is sold by blood banks to hospitals and patients.

Conant and other witnesses told the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee that blood banks knew in early 1983 that AIDS was likely transmitted by blood.

Dr. Edgar Engleman, medical director of the Stanford University medical school’s blood bank, said his facility was criticized by other blood banks when in July 1983 it became the first in the nation to screen donated blood with a test designed to reduce transfusion transmission of AIDS.

Critics argued ″that there was no proof that AIDS could be transmitted by blood transfusion and that the test we were using was experimental and too costly,″ he said in his testimony.

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