Blood donation vCJD fears prompt inquiry

Blood bags
Image caption Currently, there is no test used to screen donor blood for vCJD

An inquiry is being launched to check the safety of donor blood amid fears of infection from the human form of "mad cow disease".

The Commons Science and Technology Committee called for the inquiry after studies revealed one in every 2,000 Britons could be carrying variant CJD.

Although these people may never develop symptoms, they could spread the disease to others via blood.

Donor blood is not tested for vCJD, but precautions are taken to cut the risk.

To limit the transmission risk from blood, organs and tissues, NHS Blood and Transplant excludes donors whom it deems to be at higher risk of infection, such as those who themselves have had a blood transfusion.

Donor blood is stripped of white cells to further minimise infection risk.

And wherever possible, disposable instruments are used for retrieving of donor tissues. Where this is not possible, the instruments are sterilised to kill off any traces of the prion disease.

But experts are questioning whether such measures are enough.


Committee chairman Andrew Miller MP said: "Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is a terrible condition and we were extremely concerned to hear evidence that this incurable disease still poses a significant risk to public health.

"Although the risk of developing the disease as a result of eating contaminated beef was long ago eliminated, it is possible that the infection could still be unwittingly spread through medical procedures.

"We were told that this may happen through failure to properly clean medical instruments, or, even more worryingly, through widespread contamination of the blood and organ supply.

"We want to explore whether the government is taking this threat as seriously as it should be."

Since the link between vCJD and a disease called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle was discovered in 1996, strict controls have prevented meat from infected cattle from entering the food chain.

But people who ate infected meat before the controls came into force may unknowingly be carrying the infection.

To date, there have been 177 UK deaths from vCJD. Most of these occurred in the late 90s and early 2000s. There has been only one death in the past two years.

NHS Blood and Transplant says the UK has one of the safest blood supplies in the world.

A spokeswoman said: "We are constantly looking to increase scientific understanding of risks of disease transmission through blood, organ and tissue donation.

"We will submit evidence to this inquiry."

Scientists have been developing a blood test for vCJD but none has yet been adopted for routinely screening donor blood.

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