Empty collection bags being assembled. —( File photo/AJC STAFF)
Photo: DWIGHT ROSS JR.
Photo: DWIGHT ROSS JR.

All blood donations in U.S. must be tested for Zika virus, FDA says

Fearing the Zika virus will enter the nation’s blood bank supplies, the Food and Drug Administration on Friday suggested that all donated blood and blood components be tested for the presence of the Zika virus.

Georgia will be among the first 11 states to begin the new testing program and will have up to four weeks to start testing any new blood donations. The remaining states will have up to 12 weeks to implement screening.

Florida began testing its blood supply after two small clusters of Zika infections developed in the Miami-Dade area. Those cases marked the first time the virus was spread by local mosquitoes on the mainland U.S. Prior to that, the majority of the more than 2,500 Zika infections had been the result of people traveling to Zika outbreak regions where they were bitten by mosquitoes carrying the disease.

“There is still much uncertainty regarding the nature and extent of Zika virus transmission,” said Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “At this time, the recommendation for testing the entire blood supply will help ensure that safe blood is available for all individuals who might need transfusion.”

Most people who are infected with the Zika virus have no idea that they have been infected. Only one in five people get symptoms, which include fever, headache, rash, conjunctivitis, sore muscles. Most people have no lasting health problems after contracting the disease. But for pregnant women, the virus can cause severe birth defects in their developing fetuses.

Georgia and the other 10 states were chosen both for their proximity to Florida and for the relatively high number of travel-related Zika cases in each. The remaining states in that first tier include Alabama, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina and Texas.

The 12-week, roll-out time for the rest of the nation to begin testing blood supplies has to do with the availability of the actual tests.

“Twelve weeks will give manufacturers enough time to scale up manufacturing the tests to meet the increased demand,” said Laura Carter, FDA consumer safety officer.

Any person who has tested positive for Zika should be made to wait at least 120 days after a positive-test diagnosis to be considered again for a blood donation.

The American Red Cross is working with the FDA and CDC to implement the new donation guidelines.

“The Red Cross is conducting blood donor tests for Zika virus under an investigational study in five southeastern states in the U.S. that are believed to be at greatest risk of local mosquito transmission of Zika virus in which our collections occur,” said Dr. Susan Stramer, Red Cross vice president of Scientific Affairs in a statement. “Over the next two weeks, we will expand this testing to four additional states in the south central and southwestern U.S.”

Earlier this year the agency began asking potential donors in health history questionnaires about any possible exposure to Zika they may have had. That will continue, in addition to the new FDA sample screening process.

A Florida-based blood screening center announced earlier this month that it would begin screening blood donations in Georgia and Alabama in light of concern over the virus.

The nation’s blood supply is already screened for HIV.

The mainland arrival of the Zika virus was publicly reported at the of July. It has spread to at least four counties in Florida now, with at least two dozen people infected from bites from local mosquitoes carrying the virus. There are a little more than 11,500 cases of Zika throughout the nation, according to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The majority of those cases are of people who traveled to Zika outbreak areas. A small number of those people, however, got the disease from having sex with someone who harbored the virus.

So far, there are 61 travel related cases of Zika in Georgia, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

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