Much recent media coverage of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) has equated blood transfusion with sexual activity and intravenous drug use in the spread of AIDS. It would relieve the anxiety of many people whose lives depend on blood products and others who anticipate elective surgery if the risk factors for AIDS were kept in proper perspective.
The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reported in July that only 202 AIDS cases out of 12,067 are transfusion-related (just over 1.5%). Retrospective studies indicate that 90% of these cases could have been prevented if the HTLV-III antibody test, now being used by blood services throughout the nation, had been available at the time these AIDS patients were transfused. The fact is that the blood supply today is safer than it has ever been.
Red Cross and others who collect blood for transfusion have many safeguards. At Red Cross, we make certain every donor knows what diseases can be transmitted by blood. If the donor knows he should not donate but feels he cannot walk out without being conspicuous, he can use a telephone number provided to every donor to call later and ask that his blood not be used for transfusion.
All donors who do not self-defer are asked by a nurse if they belong to a group at risk for AIDS and if they have certain symptoms related to blood-transfusion diseases. Anyone with symptoms is deferred.
Since March of 1985 every unit collected has been tested for antibody to the HTLV-III virus that causes AIDS. Any unit that tests positive is promptly destroyed. Finally, each unit is checked against a donor referral registry to be certain the donor has not previously been deferred.
HTLV-III antibody testing is presently indicating that approximately two donors per thousand will have a confirmed positive test. (Two different tests are used and each one is repeated.) However, not all these donors are likely to get AIDS. All the tests can tell us is that the donor has been exposed to AIDS. Eventually, these donors will be notified and encouraged to monitor their own health and take precautions to prevent exposing others.
One final point: It seems a few people still believe the myth that it is possible to get AIDS from donating blood. This is impossible. All collection equipment is sterile and never reused.
CARROLL L. SPURLING MD
Spurling is executive director of American Red Cross Blood Services, Los Angeles-Orange counties region.