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Don't Stop Transfusions Due to West Nile Fears

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 4, 2002 – Officials are urging people not to forgo blood transfusions because of concerns about West Nile Virus.

"A blood transfusion is usually a life-saving or life- sustaining event," said Army Col. Michael Fitzpatrick, director of the Armed Services Blood Program.

Medical experts have recently reported several cases where individuals are believed to have contracted West Nile Virus through blood transfusions or donated organs.

Fitzpatrick said the risk of getting ill from West Nile Virus is so low that he wouldn't want someone to choose not to get a needed blood transfusion.

West Nile Virus is generally spread through bites from infected mosquitoes. It is deadly for some types of birds and horses, but generally doesn't cause illness in humans, according to public-health experts.

Fitzpatrick explained that most people who do become ill because of the virus experience only mild cold-like symptoms and never realize they are infected with West Nile. However, in the elderly, very young children or people with weakened immune systems, the virus can cause a deadly form of encephalitis.

Because of the reports of transmissions through blood, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are warning blood donor centers to be especially vigilant in screening potential donors.

Fitzpatrick described this process as performing a "mini- physical" on donors checking such things as temperature, blood pressure and pulse, and asking questions about the donor's general health.

"All collection centers have been doing this routinely for years," Fitzpatrick said. "This is merely a heightened awareness."

Fitzpatrick also urged donors who subsequently come down with cold- or flu-like symptoms to call the donor center and report their illness. Any blood or blood products from that donor will be quarantined from use in patients.

If the donor then sees a physician and tests negative for West Nile Virus, the blood will be cleared for use. If the donor has not been "cleared" for West Nile Virus, the unexpired blood will be disposed of.

Blood products have varying shelf lives. Red blood cells are stored for up to 42 days, while platelets expire after five days. Fresh-frozen plasma can be kept for up to one year, Fitzpatrick explained.

He said the military has an advantage over many civilian communities: an aggressive preventive-medicine program. He said West Nile Virus is a "reportable disease," meaning medical professionals are required to report instances of West Nile infection to the CDC.

If a reportable disease is detected in a military patient, preventive-medicine professionals would follow up to see if that patient had donated blood and make sure the proper authorities were notified, Fitzpatrick explained.

The colonel also urged people to continue donating blood. "There's a continual need for blood," he said. The only caveat, if you've had a minor illness, wait 14 days before donating, he said.

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