No more mad cow disease: banned blood donors can donate again

Thousands of Americans who lived or traveled in Europe between 1980 and 2001 are once again rolling up their sleeves.

US Army veteran Matt Schermerhorn was unable to donate blood for years because he was stationed in Europe during a death mad cow disease scare there. Now he is proud to be back in the donor chair.

Schermerhorn, 58, is among thousands of people, including current and former military personnel, who have returned to blood centers across the country after federal health officials lifted a ban that had lasted more than two decades.

“It’s a responsibility. It’s a civic duty,” said Schermerhorn, who donated on Veterans Day at the ImpactLife Center in Davenport, Iowa. “You really don’t have to try too hard to help those around you.”

Blood donors across the country are tracking down people like Schermerhorn, US citizens who lived, worked or vacationed in the UK, France, Ireland or served at military bases in Europe during various periods between 1980 and 2001, and anyone who has received blood transfusions in these three countries since 1980.

Since 1999, these people have been banned from donating blood in the US for fear of exposure to mad cow disease. Outbreaks of the cattle-borne infection swept across Europe, eventually killing at least 232 people, mostly in Britain. Four cases have been reported in the US, all in people likely to have contracted the infections abroad, health officials said.

The rare disease is caused by an abnormal form of a protein called a prion, which triggers harmful changes in the brain and central nervous system. It is transmitted from sick cattle to people who eat contaminated beef, but it can also be transmitted through blood transfusions. But after decades of research and re-evaluation, the federal Food and Drug Administration has found that the risk of the disease has decreased, in large part due to changes in the way cattle are raised and the treatment of donated blood is. The agency has eased restrictions over the past two years and lifted them entirely in May.

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That means hundreds of thousands of former donors can once again roll up their sleeves to potentially support U.S. blood draws left behind during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The important thing is that people who feel they may be eligible now to call their local blood center,” said Kate Fry, executive director of America’s Blood Centers, which represents more than 600 blood collection sites that supply nearly 60% of US blood deliver deliver.

The American Red Cross, which provides about 40% of US supplies, last month began accepting donors previously on hold for risk of mad cow disease, officially known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD.

Invariably fatal, with an incubation period that can last years or even decades, the emergence of vCJD in humans in the late 1990s alarmed officials responsible for the safety of the blood supply, said Dr. Rita Reik, chief medical officer of OneBlood, a collection center in Florida.

“It was a scary new disease,” Reik said. “That’s why it’s taken so long to study this disease, to get a level of comfort, to get to postponement.”

Five cases of vCJD were transmitted through blood transfusions in the UK National Health Service. Today, the risk of becoming infected through blood transfusions is “essentially negligible,” Reik said.

Tracking down lost donors has been a challenge, said Dr. John Armitage, executive director of the Oklahoma Blood Institute. Its staff have contacted more than 6,300 donors who have been turned away since 1999 by email, postcard, and phone. So far, about 350 have returned to donate.

“We feel good about it as a first try,” Armitage said. “We know there are people we haven’t reached yet.”

Bans remain in place for people suspected of having vCJD or related diseases, people who have a blood relative with a related disease, and people who have received human pituitary growth hormone or a certain type of brain tissue transplant from cadavers.

The military ban, now lifted, affected Schermerhorn, a retired lieutenant colonel who was stationed in Germany from 1988 to 1992.

Schermerhorn stayed away for years – until he saw local news about the recent change. He has donated his rare type O negative blood eight times since last year.

For Schermerhorn, donating blood is a way to repay previous donors who reached out when his older brother was seriously injured in a boating accident.

“My brother had drawn nine liters of blood from total strangers,” he said. “They were part of the lifeline that kept him alive.” No more mad cow disease: banned blood donors can donate again

Laura Coffey

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