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Blood Donations Halted From Personnel Deployed To Iraq

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTION, Oct. 21, Oct. 21, 2003 – A parasitic disease being spread by sand flies in Iraq has prompted officials who oversee the military's blood supply to implement a one-year donor deferral for military personnel serving in that country.

The reason for the deferral is a form of the disease Leishmaniasis, which causes sores or lesions on the skin, and which in its most serious form can cause death.

Since 2002, military health officials have reported 22 cases of the disease, with the majority being reported this year.

"It's a cautious deferral; we're erring on the side of safety," said Lt. Col. Ruth Sylvester, director of the Armed Services Blood Program Office.

"People who actually get the disease are permanently deferred," she explained. "The issue with those who are exposed is that there is an incubation period before any symptoms appear the deferral will prevent them from unknowingly donating blood."

According to the Armed Services Blood Program office, the parasite that causes the disease has been proven to survive in blood products stored under standard conditions for up to 25 days, and at least six cases of transfusion- transmitted cases of the disease have been reported.

Sylvester, who said she is not a physician but understands the disease, said there are two types of Leishmaniasis. The most common, but less serious, form is cutaneous Leishmaniasis, which causes lesions on the skin that may look like a volcano with a raised edge and center "crater" and may be covered with a scab, she said. "All of the military cases so far have been cutaneous," she added.

However, she said the more serious form of the disease -- visceral Leishmaniasis -- can affect the internal organs of the body, such as the spleen and liver, and can lead to death.

Sylvester said military people who have been infected with the disease are being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, where doctors have set up a special treatment program just for the disease. People infected with the disease undergo a three-week drug regimen that "will eliminate the disease and take care of the infection," she said.

"I don't believe there is cause for alarm," Sylvester emphasized. "We had 22 cases in the last two years with all the people we've had deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq and throughout the entire Central Command area. So it's a very small number, given the total number of people deployed."

But she did express concern about the disease's impact on the number of eligible military blood donors. The latest deferral is just one of many the military's blood program is now facing, she said.

In recent years, the Armed Services Blood Program had to defer donors due to malaria risks around the world, and also had to defer people who might been exposed to a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -- better known as "Mad Cow" disease -- or who lived in certain parts of Europe for specified time periods between 1980 and 1996.

"When we lose these donors, we have to bring in more donors," Sylvester said. "We have to find donors who have not traveled, not been deployed, and haven't lived in Europe. It's imperative that we find donors who have not deployed, and we're focusing our efforts on bringing those donors in."

Sylvester noted that the military has plenty of eligible donors to draw from, and she encouraged military and DoD personnel, as well as family members, to donate blood on a regular basis by scheduling appointments with local DoD donor centers. Where DoD does not have donor centers, she encourages donations to local civilian agencies.

"In the DoD blood program, we only touch a very small percentage of the population that we draw from -- about 20 percent of the eligible donors," she said. "So there are plenty of donors out there. The challenge is to get them in the door and to get them to donate."

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