In light of the recent announcement of the UK wide inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal from the 1970s and 80s, this week’s post is all about blood. Well, more about the way blood transfusion guidelines have been adapted since the mad cow’s disease scandal from the late 1980s.
Cruetzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD) is currently incurable and derives from a collection of neurodegenerative illnesses caused by prions (irregular shaped proteins). Diseases such as this can be found in humans as well as other mammals, for example Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) also known as Mad Cow’s Disease. There are a number of forms including sporadic, acquired or familial. Variant CJD (vCJD) is a form of which entered the human food chain between the years of 1980 and 1996 from the prion disease which affects cattle, BSE.
However, there have been 3 confirmed cases in the UK which have been caused by contaminated blood via transfusion. Thus, measures have been put into place to help prevent contamination and prevent the spread of infection. These precautionary measures are not only taken here but also in countries around the world. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration recommend the deferral of blood donations from anyone who has resided in the UK for 6 months or more between 1980 and 1996.
The reason for writing this post is because I didn’t find this out until I was completing my degree and if it wasn’t for being told by a lecturer I probably wouldn’t know now. Although, I don’t donate blood (for a number of reasons) I still find the idea of “British” blood being a health risk an interesting concept. Not least because everyone I seem to have dropped this info to in the past was also as unaware as me of the consequences of the “mad cow disease” scandal. Being 26 myself I fall into the category of “questionable” blood. And I suppose it makes sense. I remember being a kid and not being allowed to eat a corned beef sandwich, which to me was a travesty. Especially, when everyone else around me, adults that is, were eating them. We even went veggie as a family for a while. Please note if you are a blood donor you are at no risk from infection of CJD. Donation is a sterile procedure using disposable and non-reusable needles meaning no one can contract the disease through donating their blood.
Variant CJD’s first confirmed case was back in 1996. Until 2015 there were 177 definite and probable cases of the illness in the UK. However, other countries have been affected with 25 cases occurring in France, likely caused by consuming infected British beef. The fact it can be spread by transfusion has led to donors who had been given a blood transfusion since 1980 now not being allowed to donate.
What about plasma?
Plasma is the liquid part of our blood which transports all the other components of blood (e.g. red and white cells, platelets) around the body. Since 1999, plasma used for blood products such as clotting factors has been acquired from outside of the UK. FFP or fresh frozen plasma has been obtained from the United States if used for under 16s born on or after 1 January 1996, a precaution in place since 2005 and for babies and children since 2004.
Is this something we should panic about? No, I don’t think so. There are risks associated with blood transfusions and several preventative measures are in place to reduce the risk of infection, not just from CJD. As the announcement of the inquiry into contaminated blood shows other infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis also pose risks. Yet, the advances in science have helped to ensure blood donation and transfusion are as safe as can be expected. Particularly, since the scandals which arose in the 70s, 80s and 90s. vCJD has so far been shown to have been transmitted via transfusion on just 3 occasions. Although 3 times more than it should have been, the response by the government and NHS is designed to minimise any future risk.
One thing however, which does unsettle me somewhat is the lack of knowledge I have seen regarding this issue. I am definitely pro the public being involved in all things science and health, thus for all of those resident in the UK during 1980-1996 we surely should be well aware of the status of our blood and its components. This post is not designed to scare but highlights certain aspects of health and science we may not always be aware of. Blood transfusion and indeed donation are incredible feats which help to prolong the lives of thousands of people and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.