contamination of quarantined American Red Cross blood

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[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 02/06/03]

Supply of blood drops as tests go on

No final result ready on substance in bags


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Anxious patients, physicians and hospital executives throughout Georgia ended Wednesday the way they began -- clu eless about the possible contamination of quarantined American Red Cross blood.

And it was another day of delaying nonemergency medical care, keeping an eye on shrinking stacks of blood reserves and wondering when the crisis would end.

At Northside Hospital, about 80 surgeries were canceled Wednesday, including nonemergency Caesarean section births, said spokeswoman Katherine Watson. Many of the surgeries canceled Friday, when the quarantine hit, had been rescheduled for Wednesday, causing a major backlog.

"We're taking it day by day," Watson said. "We're in dire need of blood."

Although an announcement was expected about the source of mysterious white particles discovered in a blood shipment one week ago, government and Red Cross officials said Wednesday that test results may not be released until Friday or later.

"White particulate matter" has been found in 120 blood bags distributed to two Red Cross regional centers covering Georgia, northern Florida and parts of South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri.

The delay was blamed on the bureaucracy of the agencies and companies involved.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Food and Drug Administration, American Red Cross and Baxter Healthcare Corp., which makes the blood collection bags, are participating in the investigation.

"We are still hoping [test results] will be out this week," said Candice Gulden, spokeswoman for Red Cross' Blood Services Southern Region, based in midtown Atlanta. "We're waiting for it and when we get it, we're going to turn it around as fast as we can to the public."

Michelle Hudgins, who represents Red Cross national headquarters, said Wednesday evening that CDC test findings had yet to be received at the Washington office.

The CDC also said results will not be made public until later this week. Previous CDC tests found the particles weren't caused by an infectious agent or sabotage.

Government tests have yet to determine the role of Baxter, a leading manufacturer of the clear, thick collection bags holding about one pint of blood.

However, Baxter, a worldwide company with $7.7 billion in sales in 2001, did conduct tests on four contaminated bags and said the particles were common components of blood that sometimes coagulate into strange shapes.

Small fibrin clots of white blood cells and platelets could be the culprit, Baxter said -- a phenomenon it has seen before.

Monday, Baxter officials met with the Red Cross in Atlanta, then took back 20 suspect bags of the quarantined blood for testing at its Deerfield, Ill., laboratories.

The complete analysis of those bags may be complete by Friday, said Tanya Tyska, Baxter spokeswomen. Baxter's stock fell 22 cents Wednesday to $27.98 a share at closing.

Georgia health officials have found no adverse effects among patients who have recently received Red Cross blood.

Meanwhile, LifeSouth, a competing blood collection agency in Gainesville, Fla., said it has done its own investigation and consulted blood experts around the country, but found nothing dangerous in the quarantined blood.

"They can't find anything infectious or hazardous or anything that doesn't belong in blood," said Bill Gair, chief operating officer of LifeSouth.

LifeSouth's tests reveal that some of the particulate matter is globs of fat, derived from donors with high-fat content in their own blood -- often a result of them eating a high-fat meal prior to donation.

Bags with particularly high fat content are not supposed to be used for transfusions.

About the fat theory, Gulden of the Atlanta Red Cross said, "We don't have anything to indicate that's what the white particles are."

And early this week, Dr. Christopher D. Hillyer, an Emory University professor who works with the Red Cross, said that the white material "doesn't appear to be human in origin."

Blood continued to be flown into Georgia from out of state, but it wasn't enough for many medical centers.

The Red Cross is distributing 1,700 bags from out of state and an additional 2,000 bags that have been collected locally.

Emory University Hospital continued postponing elective surgeries Wednesday. With new blood supply expected from the Red Cross today, doctors planned to perform several operations this weekend, when few surgeries are normally done.

"Hopefully by the beginning of next week, we'll be back to normal," said Dr. John Roback, assistant director of Emory's blood bank.

St. Joseph's Hospital, which uses LifeSouth as its blood source, said the shortage could be a disaster in the making, especially with 65,000 additional people coming into Atlanta for the NBA All-Star Game this weekend.

"The community hasn't had a patient die because of this situation," said Diana Lewis, spokesperson for St. Joseph's Hospital. "But if people don't start donating, that could happen. We truly are in a crisis situation."
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