Doubt cast on safety of UK blood supply

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The Independent Online

Health Editor

The testing of British blood supplies is less stringent than in many other European countries, and at least 250 people each year contract potentially life-threatening viral infections as a result, a doctor is warning.

Dr Lesley Kay, a consultant haematologist in private practice, says donated blood should be routinely screened for the human T-cell leukaemia/ lymphoma virus (HTLV-1), and the hepatitis B "core antibody". The latter is a more sensitive test - indicating that a person has been infected with hepatitis B in the past - than that in present use which indicates active infection.

Blood authorities in France, Sweden, and the Netherlands, where the prevalence of HTLV-1 in the population is the same as Britain - about 1 in 20,000 - do screen for it, Dr Kay says. Portugal will introduce screening this year. In Japan, the US, and Canada, screening is mandatory. France, Germany, and several other European countries also screen blood for hepatitis B core antibodies.

In a letter published in tomorrow's issue of the British Medical Journal, Dr Kay says that around 200 people are infected with HTLV-1 annually, following blood transfusion, while there are around 50 cases of hepatitis B transmission.

"The blood supply in Britain is manifestly not as safe as it can be reasonably made," she writes.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said yesterday that blood screening was kept under constant review. "We have been screening for hepatitis B antigen for more than 20 years and that is believed to be perfectly adequate.

"The lifetime risk for HTLV-1 infection is 2 to 3 per cent and it is considered not worthwhile to screen donated blood."