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Friday, 6 July, 2001, 02:52 GMT 03:52 UK
vCJD test 'could hit blood donations'
vCJD causes characteristic sponginess in the brain
There are fears that the number of blood donors in the UK could drop by as much as half when a test for the human form of mad cow disease is introduced.

Scientists in Switzerland believe they have made an important breakthrough in the search for a blood test for variant creutzfeld jakob disease (vCJD).

BBC2's Newsnight revealed on Thursday that it could be available within months.

The National Blood Service fears there could be a drop of around 50% in the amount of blood in blood banks as people grow afraid about being subjected to the test.

If there is a test that is implementable then obviously we should do it for the patients' benefit

Dr Angela Robinson
National Blood Service
It believes that even if the results were not released to donors, many would drop out for fear of having the test and positive samples would have to be discarded.

When the screening for HIV was introduced, there was a 5% fall in donations.

The BBC programme on Thursday said the UK's Edinburgh-based CJD Surveillance Unit is sending blood samples to Swiss scientist Dr Claudio Soto.

He will use them to test a new technique that could lead to a blood test for humans within months.

Dr Angela Robinson, medical director of the National Blood Service, said she was encouraged by Dr Soto's work.

"We have been desperately searching for a diagnostic test that really will work for quite some time now, and this looks very promising," she said.

"If there is a test that is implementable then obviously we should do it for the patients' benefit."

Donations fear

Evan Harris MP, a member of the British Medical Association (BMA) Ethics Committee, told Newsnight he was worried about how the test would be applied.

He said: "I can see in a commercial sense that individuals may be offered the test for a price and I would say it's not a good thing for doctors to be involved in that process until it is predicted and something can be done with the information."

Peter Smith, from the Spongiform Encepalopathy Advisory Committee, said the test could have an important public information role.

He said that "one of the prime epidemiological purposes will be to use a test such as this one being developed if indeed they're useful to estimate what size of the population has been infected".

Donor disclosures

Mr Smith expected that individuals going to donate blood "would have to be told that this testing was going to be done".

He added: "I personally would find it very difficult to see a situation where testing was done and it was found positive and individuals were not told that result, even though at this stage we really don't know what we tell them with respect to the prognosis."

Officials at the National Blood Service are now working on a worst case scenario to cope if there is a drop in the amount of blood available.

They stressed that a 50% drop was the worst they feared and it might be much less.

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See also:

22 Mar 01 | Health
'vCJD may take 30 years to show'
16 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
Sore throat link to CJD
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