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Statement on Estimates of Infectious Disease Risk Factors in U.S. Blood Donors

From Claude Lenfant, M.D., Director, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Embargoed for Release:
March 25, 1997, 4:00 PM EST

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has a major commitment to maintaining and improving the safety and adequacy of the U.S. blood supply. The Retrovirus Epidemiology Donor Study, or REDS, is one of the most important tools in this effort.

Recent REDS data showed that the blood supply is safer than it's ever been. Now new data from a REDS survey provide additional information about the effectiveness of our efforts to prevent donors at risk of HIV and other infectious diseases from donating blood for transfusion.

These data, published in the March 26th Journal of the American Medical Association, show that nearly 2 percent of the 35,000 blood donors from 5 blood centers who participated in the anonymous survey, conducted in late 1993, did not provide accurate answers to blood bank questions at the time of their donations. The questions were about behaviors that could put them at risk for HIV and other infectious diseases. Although other smaller studies have suggested that this was an issue, this is the first large-scale study that provides data on the blood donor screening process.

There are many independent and overlapping safeguards in place to protect the blood supply. One of these, laboratory testing of all donated blood, is increasingly effective, and today virtually all infectious blood is detected and destroyed. Nonetheless, the REDS data show that 0.4 percent of the surveyed blood donors participated in high risk behavior within the three-month time period prior to donating blood. This means that the donor could be in the "window period," when HIV or other viruses may appear in insufficient quantities in the blood to be detected by current laboratory tests.

REDS is now seeking additional information about why these donors do not respond accurately to the screening questionnaire. The NHLBI is also conducting research to evaluate donors who seek HIV testing at blood centers and other factors that influence people's decisions to donate blood.

We are encouraged by the opportunity to evaluate this issue scientifically and to work with the Food and Drug Administration and the REDS researchers to develop new procedures to further protect blood safety.

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