Big increase in HIV-positive blood donors is revealed

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The number of blood donors found to be HIV positive has increased dramatically in England and Wales to the highest level for 16 years, internal documents obtained under the Freedom of Information laws show.

The number of blood donors found to be HIV positive has increased dramatically in England and Wales to the highest level for 16 years, internal documents obtained under the Freedom of Information laws show.

The rise in HIV-infected donations - the highest since 1987 - means that the chance of contaminated blood reaching patients needing transfusions has doubled. In 2003, 42 people who gave blood were found to be unwittingly carrying the HIV virus - a two-fold rise in the prevalence of HIV-infected blood compared to 1997-2002.

The papers show that the National Blood Service has detected more than 500 HIV carriers through its screening programme in the past 17 years. It immediately destroyed their blood and informed them they were carrying the virus.

But it is so concerned about "the significantly higher prevalence and incidence of HIV in new and repeat blood donations" in 2003 that it urgently reviewed its safety and screening measures - including considering changing the donor-selection process.

In 2002 two HIV-infected donations got through the rigorous screening programme and were used in transfusions, the documents show. The blood service declined to reveal details of these cases to protect patient confidentiality.

But in 1997 three patients were infected with the HIV virus by blood transfusions taken from an HIV-positive donor. One died from an unrelated medical condition.

"The only previous case in England arose in 1997 and was established following investigation of HIV infection in a blood recipient," an internal Blood Service report on the "HIV position" said.

People who have had sex with high-risk groups - such as drug users - are already banned from giving blood along with people who have travelled to most African countries and had sexual intercourse there.

But minutes of internal documents indicate that specialists in the blood service have warned the risk of an HIV-infected donation "entering the blood supply had doubled" because of the leap in infected donations. A spokesman said there was now a statistical chance of one HIV-infected donation getting past its screening process every two years. The risk is highest in London and the South-east.

There was also a 14-fold increase in risk in Scotland in 2001-2002 because of 10 HIV-positive donors being detected, according to the papers.

Internal documents blame the rise in HIV infection for the increase in contamination, but they also ask if a drive to recruit more ethnic minority donors may be a factor. An analysis of HIV prevalence in donors says: "It is possible that the increased numbers reflect marketing activity aimed at ethnic-minority donors, but no detailed work has been carried out to examine this possibility, and ethnic minority donors are not the sole reason for the increase."

A breakdown of HIV-infected donations between 1995 and 2004 shows that the vast majority of carriers were white while 15 were black Caribbean and 17 were black African.

HIV carriers who give blood within 11 days of contracting the virus - known as "window-period donors" - pose the greatest risk since tests cannot detect the virus. The service is considering bringing in tests that are better at detecting the virus at an early stage.

Yesterday the Blood Service stressed that the chance of contracting HIV from a blood donation was tiny and there were tight "safety measures in place".

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