Blood Banks Could Feel Squeeze From Zika Advisories

FDA recommends turning away donors with infection risk

As public health officials in the United States scurry to implement strategies to meet the Zika virus threat, one such tactic could exacerbate a different health concern: maintaining the nation’s supply of donated blood, according to Kaiser Health News.

The FDA is encouraging blood banks—which already struggle to meet demand—to turn away potential donors who might be at risk. Specifically, people who have traveled to a country where the disease is being spread, or had sex with someone else who did, should not donate blood for four weeks. The protocol is being followed by clinics across the country.

Although evidence is limited, there is a possibility that the Zika virus, which can cause birth defects when contracted by pregnant women and is primarily transmitted by mosquito bites, could also be spread through blood transfusions. That connection, while drawing less attention than links to sex or childbirth, is raising the stakes for what could happen if the virus spreads unchecked in the U.S., Kaiser says.

Even in locations where Zika isn’t likely to pose as great a threat, blood banks are worried that the FDA’s advisory—because of the sheer number of people traveling to areas where the virus is active—could undercut their supplies.

There is no widely available, government-approved blood test to screen donations, although one is being used on an experimental basis for blood collected in Puerto Rico and in Houston, Texas.

Even though the risk of infection is small, caution is still warranted, experts warn. Especially for people with serious injuries, blood transfusions can be the key to recovery. Unsafe blood has spread a number of dangerous viruses, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). And the consequences of getting infected with the Zika virus—especially for women in the early stages of pregnancy—can be severe, including birth defects for children or miscarriage.

Many banks report they are already feeling the squeeze, according to the Kaiser report.

Donor drop-offs are probably greater in Southern states, where people more frequently travel to affected areas, such as Mexico, parts of the Caribbean, and South America, said Louis Katz, chief medical officer of America’s Blood Centers.

Federal officials hope to expand the blood testing technology that’s being used in Puerto Rico and Texas, so banks can collect blood from donors, screen it, and then discard whatever comes up positive for Zika virus infection. The FDA has given two tests the go-ahead to be used in clinical trials, which means blood centers can become testing sites and use the technology. One test was developed by Roche. The other, which gained conditional FDA approval in June, is manufactured by Hologic.

The Department of Health and Human Services has awarded approximately $50 million in grants to two companies that are trying to improve “pathogen reduction technology,” which takes infected blood and removes the virus, making it safe for use. Such technology already exists for treating viruses, including Zika, in platelets and plasma. Researchers are working to improve it and develop a similar “cleanser” for red blood cells, the most commonly transfused part of blood. But, experts noted, that could take years.

Source: Kaiser Health News; July 6, 2016.