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However, the spread of mad cow disease across Europe is already having a damaging effect on the U.S. blood supply and the worst may be yet to come.
Three flocks of "mad sheep" were diagnosed in Vermont six months ago. A fatal "mad deer" disease is occurring at epidemic levels in deer and elk across the Western states. Both of these diseases are closely related to mad cow disease, or BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) — a chronic wasting disease spreading across Europe and linked to a deadly human variation called CJD.
The U.S. government has banned beef from BSE-infected countries, ordered vaccines from infected countries replaced and has placed bans on certain blood donations.
Efforts to protect America's blood supply from mad cow contamination — by donors who may have eaten contaminated beef — have already reduced the blood supply by 2.2 percent, the Red Cross reports. That translates to approximately 300,000 units or pints of blood, which is more than 120,000 transfusions.
New proposals could raise that percentage exponentially.
Anyone who has lived in the United Kingdom or Ireland for more than six months between January 1980 and December 1996 is prohibited — for life — from donating blood.
The six-month benchmark was chosen when studies showed banning everyone who visited Britain during that period would devastate the American blood supply.
"Our bottom line is safety," says an FDA spokeswoman who asked not to be identified. "These are precautionary measures. The FDA will review residence of blood donors in France, and other BSE countries including Germany. We are concerned both about blood safety and maintaining an adequate supply of blood products."
This means if you've traveled or studied in Europe or if you are a member of the military stationed in Europe, your blood may be suspect.
U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dave Lee is one of hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel and their families already banned from donating blood.
"I feel disappointed that I can no longer help anybody," says Lee, whose type O-negative blood once made him a universal donor. "But I'm also relieved the powers that be are taking measures to protect the blood supply."
In recent weeks Germany has confirmed its first cases of BSE. New cases have been reported in France and the Netherlands. The disease has also been found in Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.
Risk for Hunters
Mad deer disease, also called chronic wasting disease or CWD, has hit a full 15 percent of free-ranging deer and elk in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming.
Three young hunters exposed to mad deer disease died in the past three years of CJD. Although medical experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found no evidence of a link, CDC epidemiologist Dr. Ermias Belay says, "This does not totally exonerate CWD from being a human pathogen."
Although leading scientists believe it is carried in the blood, currently there is no blood test that will expose it.
The wasting disease attacks the brain, slowly eating it away. Early symptoms include depression and unusual sensory sensations like a sticky feeling to the skin.
Victims, young and old, fall ill and over a matter of months, slowly lose their sight, their hearing, and their minds. By the time of death they can't move or speak. Since October 1996, variant CJD has killed more than 90 people in Europe, more each successive year.
Due to the growing concern, the FDA is meeting on Jan. 18 to consider
expanding the blood ban from people who have lived in Europe.Canada has
already taken emergency action banning blood donations from people who
lived in France more than six months between 1980 and 1996.