By Ray O’Hanlon
Irish people living in the U.S. are free to donate their sweat and tears to their adopted country.
But many Irish immigrants will not be allowed donate their blood if recommendations currently being considered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are implemented.
The FDA has been pressed in recent times by various organizations, including the American Red Cross, to extend a ban on blood donations by residents of the U.S. from the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland — this as a result of the growing scare in Europe over Mad Cow Disease.
The matter has been in the hands of the FDA’s Transmissable (Bovine) Spongiform Encephalopthy Advisory Committee.
Late last week, the committee recommended that the FDA extend current donation restrictions beyond the UK to include people from the Republic of Ireland, France and Portugal.
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The proposed restrictions, it must be stressed, are not aimed at individuals on the basis solely of their nationality. They would also apply to U.S. citizens who have spent designated periods of time in Ireland or other specified European countries.
Last Friday morning, the American Red Cross web page contained details of the organization’s effort to tighten up an existing FDA ban on certain potential blood donors with ties to the United Kingdom.
The ban has applied in recent times to individuals who had traveled to, lived or worked in the UKfor a cumulative total of six months between 1980 and 1996.
The Red Cross stated on its web page that it wanted the ban to be extended to individuals who had spent even less than six months in the UK — including the North — between 1980 and the present.
"Currently, according to FDA regulations, anyone who has spent a total of six months or more in the United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man or the Channel Islands) between 1980 and 1996 is not eligible to donate blood," the ARC web page stated.
By Friday afternoon, however, the FDA advisory committee’s concern had extended across other borders in Europe, including the one dividing Ireland.
A spokeswoman for the FDA, Lenore Gelb, told the Echo that the advisory committee had recommended to the FDA that long term residents of France, Ireland and Portugal who had have lived in these countries for 10 years or more from 1980 on should not donate blood for the time being.
"As yet, there has been no decision on this recommendation, no change in present policy. But the committee’s recommendations will be considered by the FDA," Gelb said.
She indicated that there has been no change either in present policy as it pertains to the UK, including Northern Ireland.
The committee’s recommendation with regard to the Republic of Ireland came in the wake of recent news reports naming the Republic as one of the European countries where death had occurred from the human variant of BSE.
The New York Times reported that 88 people had died from the human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, in Britain. Three had died in France from the always fatal disease, while one death had been recorded in Ireland.
In a separate report, the Wall Street Journal referred to Ireland as being one of the European countries where a human death linked to the human variant had been recorded
Paul Savage, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture in Dublin, was quick to defend the Republic’s record in combating the disease.
"The person who died in Ireland had lived in England for many years before returning here," Savage said. "There is no evidence that BSE can be transmitted through blood donations."
He said that Ireland’s regulations aimed at dealing with BSE had been recognized as being the strictest in the world.
The feeding of cows with animal-based bonemeal — the substance that has been primarily linked to the transmission of BSE — -ended in 1990, while the designated high-risk body parts in cattle — brains, spinal cords and intestines – have not been used for any purposes, including the production of animal feed, since 1996.
According to Savage, there were 149 cases of BSE in the Republic’s cattle herd last year. That herd varies in size at any one time from roughly 7 to 7.5 million animals.
The disease was moving through the national herd with older cows showing the greatest susceptibility, he indicated.
According to Savage, if one cow in an Irish herd is discovered to have BSE, the entire herd is destroyed. That cow’s progeny is also traced and destroyed.
Ireland, he said, had lost 30 to 40 percent of its beef exports to Europe as a result of the BSE scare. And a current ban on imports of Irish cattle by Egypt — Ireland’s single largest export market — remains in force.
"The consumption of beef has remained strong in Ireland over the last 10 years," he said. "We have been very straightforward in getting the facts of the situation across to the consumer."
Such assurances, however, might not be good enough for the American Red Cross, provider of almost half the blood supply to U.S. hospitals. The organization is free to apply restrictions on donors that go even further than those applied by the FDA.
Although there was no evidence of transmission of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease by blood in humans, the ARC web page acknowledged, evidence existed in animal models that Bovine TSE was transmissible through blood.
"Therefore, the Red Cross is urging caution to ensure the safety of America’s blood supply for vulnerable patients," the ARC web page stated.
To what degree that caution is applied to Irish nationals in the U.S. will become clear in the coming weeks.
The FDA’s Gelb said any decision by the administration arising from the advisory committee’s recommendations could take two weeks or more.