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West Nile Virus Risk Sparks Blood Shortage; Military Seeks to Refill Inventory

By Spc. Chuck Wagner, USA
National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2003 – The Armed Services Blood Program Office has asked the military to withdraw all frozen blood supplies donated during last summer's West Nile virus epidemic to avoid transmitting the potentially fatal disease to recipients.

Meanwhile, blood collection centers and blood plasma manufacturers are scurrying to replace military stockpiles as a potential war looms in Iraq.

"There is some additional urgency" about the need to replenish supplies under the prospect of war, said Col. G. Michael Fitzpatrick, blood program office director.

The armed services have already replaced at-risk blood supplies within the European and Central commands, which would be front-line in a conflict with Iraq.

The withdrawal went into effect Dec. 13, after a statement by the American Association of Blood Banks. The American Red Cross, America's Blood Centers and the Armed Services Blood Program Office coordinated the withdrawal, which includes the Defense Department and civilian blood banks nationwide.

The ultimate goal is to replace all the frozen blood withdrawn from the current inventory. "The withdrawal is focused on frozen products (particularly plasma products) that were collected in states experiencing mosquito-borne transmission of West Nile virus to humans in 2002," according to a blood program office press release.

The release said the services will accelerate the production of frozen plasma products to replace withdrawn stocks and begin stockpiling frozen plasma for the summer.

Most of the liquid red blood cells collected during the height of the West Nile virus epidemic have already been transfused," the release said.

The blood program office estimates it will take until mid-March to replace the entire inventory. Blood banks were asked to quarantine, but not destroy, at-risk blood products. Meanwhile, blood banks are prioritizing their supply by sending out the safest stocks first.

The Defense Department's supply of frozen red blood cells stored for contingency operations will not be affected by the withdrawal, Fitzpatrick said, because these units were not collected during the 2002 West Nile epidemic. This includes blood stored on Navy ships.

The services have three major repositories for contingency blood supplies -- one in Italy, two in Korea. Frozen blood plasma stored in these banks was donated in the late 1980s to early 1990s, prior to the first West Nile virus outbreak in New York during the summer of 1999.

Doctors identified 13 transfusion recipients who acquired West Nile through blood collected from eight donors last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The eight donors resided in states where doctors documented mosquito-borne West Nile infections to humans. Since Dec. 3, 2002, doctors have reported 3,775 human cases of the virus, with 216 deaths. Only three deaths were related to blood transfusions.

Military and civilian blood collection organizations have asked donors to help fill the sudden dip in supply. Fitzpatrick said donors with Type AB blood are especially welcome, because AB is the universal blood plasma type. There are 21 defense collection sites.

No Food and Drug Administration-licensed test yet exists to detect the presence of West Nile in blood. The Armed Services Blood Program Office has issued donor screening and deferral guidelines to military collection sites to help identify donors who may have West Nile symptoms. This measure is intended to decrease the risk of infecting recipients in the event a test is not available by summer 2003.

(Spc. Chuck Wagner is a staff writer on the Pentagram, the newspaper of the Military District of Washington.)

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Related Sites:
Centers for Disease Control West Nile Virus Web site

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