Red Cross Plans Rapid Phase-In of AIDS Screening Test
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The American Red Cross, awaiting release of a test to screen blood for evidence of AIDS, on Thursday described plans to put the test into use nationally within days of its approval.
Red Cross officials said they have planned an intricate phase-in period for the test in all of their 57 blood regions and should complete the process within three months of the test’s availability.
″Our first priority is to insure the safety of transfusions,″ said Dr. S. Gerald Sandler, associate vice president for medical operations. ″Even though the test is not perfect, it makes it possible to protect the blood supply.″
The Health and Human Services Department announced Wednesday that licensing of the screening test, expected to be approved by mid-February, would be delayed for ″additional weeks″ while the latest data were reviewed.
Meanwhile, health officials with the government and concerned private groups continue making plans for using the test when it becomes available.
Victor W. Schmitt, a Red Cross vice president, told a briefing that the testing could add between 10 percent and 20 percent to the cost of collecting and processing blood, which is now about $60 per unit. The added costs will be passed on to users.
The organization collects about six million units annually, about half the nation’s total blood supply, he said.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, is a disease that destroys the body’s protective immune system, leaving victims vulnerable to other diseases and infections.
Scientists say the disease spreads through intimate contact with a victim or carrier’s bodily fluids, such as blood and semen. Government figures show that as of last month, 113 of these cases are attributed to transfusions of blood or blood products.
The federal Centers for Disease Control says more than 8,000 AIDS cases have been reported in the United States since 1981, claiming almost 3,900 lives.
Scientists believed AIDS is caused by a virus called HTLV-III. The blood test is designed to detect antibodies indicating past exposure to the virus, but not the virus itself or presence of the disease.
When chemicals are added to samples, technicians will look for a change in color that indicates the presence of HTLV-III antibodies. Samples that prove positive will be retested to confirm the color change, said Red Cross scientists.
Positive results indicate only that people have been exposed to the virus at some point in their lives. They do not tell if someone is presently infected or if the person will later develop the disease.
Red Cross officials said the organization is working with all five of the companies developing AIDS tests and would sign contracts with the ones licensed first by the Food and Drug Administration ″within days″ of approval.
The first kits would go to Red Cross laboratories to confirm how they work and to make sure people in local blood regions can perform the operation.
Sandler said first priority will go to testing new blood donations and stockpiles will be examined as more tests become available. Contaminated supplies, which the Red Cross estimated would be less than 1 percent of the total collected, will be destroyed.
All donors who get a positive test will be notified of the results, given information on the meaning of the finding and referred to doctors for further testing.
However, Sandler said donor notification would be delayed during the phase- in period until the whole system for handling donor questions and referrals was put into place.
Officials said the possibility of viral infection is ″minimal″ in someone getting a positive test when that person is not in a high-risk group, and that people have to be cautioned on how to interpret such findings.
High-risk groups include promiscuous male homosexuals, intravenous drug abusers, Haitian immigrants and hemophiliacs who receive transfusions of blood products from many donors to correct inherited clotting difficulties.