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Thursday, October 23, 2008

UK Announces New Blood Test for Human BSE (CJD)

The first ever diagnosis for variant CJD, which is currently undergoing clinical trials and could be available within 18 months, is seen as an important step in finally stamping out the incurable disease and preventing it from becoming endemic in society.

But medical experts on an advisory committee to the government are worried that the test may have an unexpected downside including reducing the number of blood donors. There are also fears it could increase insurance premiums.

The doctors worry that donors will be reluctant to give blood if they risk being told that they have the possibility of developing the disease which causes an agonising death.

“You would think that the development of a test was a good news story ,” said John Forsythe, chair of the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood Tissues and Organs (SABTO) and a transplant surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

“But its does have a significant downsides. There is a worry it could put anyone off from donations.”

Despite fears that the disease could become widespread in the UK, only four of the 167 people who have died from variant CJD caught it through infected blood.

However, surveys suggest that one in 4,000 people carry the infection and although 95 per cent of them may never actually develop the full blown disease, being told you have the disease would be a terrifying blow.

Mr Forsythe said that the problem is compounded because around one per cent of the positive tests could be wrong. With two million people donating blood every year that could amount to 250 people being told they have the infection, and up to three or four of them falsely diagnosed.

Professor Marc Turner, who is also on SABTO, said that both legally and ethically the donors would have to be told they are incubating the disease even though only a few could develop it fully.

“They would have to be told that they could develop a really rather horrible condition,” he said.

It is not the first time vCJD has had an impact on blood supplies.

Four years ago the number of blood donors dropped by 52,000 when anybody who had received blood transfusion in the previous two decades was banned.

At the moment blood is screened for HIV, syphillis and hepatitus B and C, but a number of companies are on the verge of developing a blood test for vCJD.

The difference is that vCJD is not curable or even treatable and many donors may prefer to not know they could develop an ultimately fatal progressive degenerative brain disease.

At present vCJD is tested for by performing post mortem biopsies on the brain.

Professor Turner said that blood donations were currently sufficient because of better management of supplies.

“We can survive a small reduction but a substantive hit would give us major problems,” he said.

SABTO, which is holding a major meeting today, is also expected to recommend that those receiving blood donations be asked for consent for the first time.

A spokesman for the Association of British Insurers said: “The industry looks at any medical development and individual companies will make their own decision.”

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