Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Let's make clean blood a priority

Blood purification technology could be used to prevent another epidemic like AIDS.

A Palestinian laboratory worker checks blood units at Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Gaza Strip on March 18, 2003. (Abid Katib/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — A crucial item is missing from America’s health care debate: our blood supply. It is easily contaminated, in chronic shortage and it goes bad more quickly than milk.

The good news is that there is new technology that addresses those problems. The bad news is that it isn't available in the United States.

America is behind on many international races these days, including the one to purify the blood supply. Other countries have already begun to use a blood purification technology, called Intercept, that brings to life the concept of pathogen inactivation — bacteria in the blood is “inactivated” so that the risk of diseases transmitted by blood transfusions is greatly reduced.

The Intercept blood platelet system is the first of its kind approved for use in Europe, Russia and parts of the Middle East and Asia. Some countries have even been using it for six years.

So far, the results have been promising. Half a million successful blood transfusions have been performed across Europe using the system. Data taken from more than 40,000 transfusions done in the Alsace region show there have been zero bacterial infections from transfusions since the use of Intercept.

The ingenious part of this concept is that it inactivates not only known diseases, but also unknown, or undetected, ones. This component of the technology is critical. Blood donations are always screened — the donor is screened and the donor’s blood is screened for known bacteria and diseases. But with an increasingly international community, thanks to cheap and easy travel, more and more unknown bacteria are entering our blood system. And not just from human contact, but from animal contact as well.

Had this technology been developed for the right blood components when HIV broke into the human blood stream, it would have mitigated the spread of the disease, at least through blood transfusions. Tens of thousands of unsuspecting hemophiliacs worldwide contracted the AIDS virus because the blood they received was unknowingly contaminated with it.

With concerns that AIDS might become a full-blown epidemic again and with the constant rise of emerging diseases that spread much more quickly — think swine flu — and natural disasters — Haiti, Katrina, Thailand’s tsunami — where many blood transfusions are needed, there is an urgency to approve such life-saving products in the U.S.

“If [Intercept] were available tomorrow, I’d use it,” said a hematological oncologist, Dr. Michael Bar, who was an internist when AIDS broke out. “It is a really great thing.”

This technology, if developed and used for all four different components of whole blood, could help prevent another epidemic like AIDS.