Sand flies keep troops from donating blood
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The military blood supply has taken another hit, this time by a parasitic disease spread by sand flies in Iraq.
So far, 22 cases of the disease have been reported, prompting officials to ban military and civilians who serve in Iraq from donating blood for at least one year.
The recent donor deferrals come after similar bans among the military population, which include troops and civilians who served in malaria-ridden countries and those who lived in Europe between 1980 and 1996 because of the potential exposure to mad cow disease.
The latest disease to taint blood supplies is called Leishmaniasis, borne in an infected sand fly, a very common pest in Iraq.
The most common but less serious form is cutaneous Leishmaniasis, which causes lesions on the skin that may look like a volcano with a raised edge and center “crater” and may be covered with a scab, according to the Armed Services Blood Program Office. The 22 reported cases have been of the cutaneous form of the disease. Those infected with the disease are being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
The more serious form of the disease, visceral Leishmaniasis, can affect the internal organs, such as the spleen and liver, and can lead to death.
Those who actually get the disease are permanently prohibited from donating blood. The issue with those who have been exposed to the environment is that there is an incubation period before any symptoms appear, so they might donate blood without knowing they have the disease, said Lt. Col. Ruth Sylvester, director of the Armed Services Blood Program Office.
The parasite that causes the disease has been proven to survive in blood products stored under standard conditions for up to 25 days. At least six cases of transfusion-transmitted cases of the disease have been reported.
Health officials estimate that 12,000 potential donors won’t be able to roll up their sleeves to give blood because of the latest deferral, Sylvester said. Already, about 15 percent of all donors in the Department of Defense are deferred for one of the above reasons, or other health-related reasons.
The Armed Services Blood Program Office provides all the blood for U.S. troops. It has 21 donor centers worldwide, including one at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and one at RAF Lakenheath, according to the office.
The program relies on just 20 percent of the eligible donor pool — including active-duty troops and Department of Defense civilians — for its supplies. Those are the donors who give and then can be counted on to give again. The deferral means the office has to
generate new donors to make up the loss.
“It makes it more challenging for us to meet our requirements,” Sylvester said. “But we still havebeen able to maintain and increase our blood supply. The key is to keep people coming back.”
After mad cow disease swept through Europe, the office launched a marketing campaign to identify and recruit donors. They found a well of potential donors in training commands and among those who hadn’t yet been deployed. In addition, they rely on military dependents to boost their supplies, Sylvester said.
The office will have to step up its recruitment efforts because of the latest deferral, said Lt. Commander Roland Fahie, deputy director of the blood program office.
Although the office had predicted a 25 percent loss of donors due to the mad cow disease deferrals, it only actually saw a 4 percent average loss thanks to the donor recruitment program, Sylvester said.