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Blood and Xenophobia

Why does the U.S. Red Cross discourage people from taking trips abroad?

February 3, 2002

Why does the U.S. Red Cross discourage people from taking trips abroad?

In the days immediately following September 11, the American Red Cross urged Americans to give blood as a way of combating terrorism. But the organization’s fear of health risks associated with blood donations is having unexpected effects.

The American Red Cross has been in the news a lot lately — for good and ill. The organization led much of the effort to boost blood supplies and cash for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks and their families.

It also met with controversy over how those donations would be used.

As a long-time blood donor, I am more concerned about a less reported issue — the American Red Cross’s increased restrictions on the travel and eating habits of eligible blood donors in the United States.

I have been a regular blood donor ever since I squeezed my first pint at a high school blood-drive. However, throughout my “career” as a blood donor, I have noticed a steady increase in the number and type of restrictions on donor eligibility.

In the 1980s, as a result of HIV-AIDS, the screening began to include a number of questions about private donor behavior and travel to certain African and Caribbean countries. More recently, there has been a further tightening of restrictions on donor travel — extending to the United Kingdom and, later on, beyond — as a result of fears about mad cow disease.

Science or fear? At present, these guidelines make anyone who has spent more than a total of six months in continental Europe since 1980 ineligible to donate blood in the United States.

On that charge, I want to confess. I’m guilty. I have been abroad too long, trying to soak in non-U.S. cultures. I spent my junior year of college studying in Italy and taught English in rural Hungary for a year — both during the 1990s. My two years outside the United States has placed me in a donor status that the Red Cross calls “indefinite deferral.” I’m now disqualified from giving blood.

The scientific basis for the new restrictions on foreign travel is somewhat vague. When I contacted the American Red Cross about this matter, I was told that my exclusion is based on the theoretical risk of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human version of mad cow disease, being spread via blood products.

The organization admits that there is “enormous scientific uncertainty.” No test exists to determine whether or not donated blood carries the disease — or whether it is even possible to spread the disease through a blood transfusion. Furthermore, mad cow disease has a latency period of 5-10 years.

I am concerned about the long-term effects of expanding restrictions on donor travel in this way. One little known fact is that in the United States, only 5% of those eligible to donate provide the nation’s entire donated blood supply. Therefore, any further reduction of this pool could have a serious impact.

The American Red Cross responds that blood safety does not have to be compromised to achieve adequate supplies.

And yet, as more and more people travel abroad, an increasing number of potential donors will be ruled out. We cannot realistically limit the ability of people to move around the globe for work, study or leisure.

Nor can we place restrictions on the eating consumption habits of our citizens abroad. We can prevent the importation of European beef, but we cannot prevent an American from enjoying a bowl of beef stew in Budapest.

I can’t help but wonder if the American Red Cross is overreacting. The restrictions might be do more harm than good by reducing the pool of eligible blood donors without provably increasing the safety of the blood supply.

After all, I doubt many people will curtail their travel so they can remain blood donors. This is certainly true for myself, even though donating blood is something that is very important to me and many other people who choose to do so.