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Blood donors stay the course

Published Sep. 3, 2005

When news broke last week that two Tampa Bay residents had contracted HIV from blood transfusions, the people who collect blood for hospitals had one big worry: Blood donors would get scared and stay away.

Nobody contracts the AIDS virus by giving blood. But facts don't always stifle public fear.

Now a week has passed and the numbers are in. No panic ensued, said J.B. Gaskins, vice president of Florida Blood Services. People who give blood are proving as dependable as ever.

"We've had donors calling us and everything else," Gaskins said. "They understand this is not a donor issue."

Meanwhile, lawyers for one of the two infected blood recipients, a 24-year-old man from Pinellas County, filed suit Thursday against Florida Blood Services. They also sued Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, where he was infected during abdominal surgery in March.

News of the tainted transfusions helped prompt Debra Drenth, a Tampa resident, to give blood again. She last donated Sept. 12.

"I know the Florida blood supply is short right now. I know my donation is needed. I'm type O, so the news probably makes it more important that they get good donations."

Drenth, 27, works in training and development at Franklin Templeton Funds. All day Thursday, several dozen employees trooped through two bloodmobiles parked outside the Franklin Templeton office in St. Petersburg.

Elizabeth Sharrer, Tycher Harvey-Stewart and Amanda Mai, who work in retirement planning operations, arrived together, bolstering each other's confidence to face the needle they knew was coming.

Why donate?

"Because I can," said Harvey-Stewart. "If I had an accident or one of my kids did, I would want the blood to be available for them."

All three women stretched out in the bloodmobile's grey lounge chairs as Jana Lippert and David Wood scrubbed their arms with Betadyne, stuck their veins and hooked them to tubes that would carry their life-giving blood to 1-pint pouches.

About 30 minutes later, they were done.

As Mai, 25, received her bandage and final instructions, she chortled to her friends.

"Hear that? No excessive use of the arm today. That means no cooking and no dish-washing."

Regular donors have maintained the blood supply on an even keel, Gaskins said. The week before the HIV infection was revealed, 4,626 pints were donated. This week, 3,945 came in.

That may look like a dropoff, but Florida Blood Services had expected only about 4,000 pints this week because of historical giving patterns at the sites the bloodmobiles would visit, he said.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in Hillsborough Circuit Court seeks unspecified damages.

It alleges the HIV could have been detected with "reasonable use of available scientific procedures or techniques," as called for under Florida law, and alleges the hospital and blood bank failed to properly test it.

Florida Blood Services and many transfusion experts dispute that. Since 1999, virtually all U.S. blood banks have used nucleic acid testing that can detect tiny amounts of HIV in the blood.

However, if a donor gives blood within 10 days of becoming infected, there may not be enough virus in the blood for the test to detect it. Because of that window, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there is a 1 in 2-million risk of contracting HIV from a blood transfusion, although in practice the incident rate has been much lower.

Since widespread nucleic acid testing began, one other case of HIV infection has been reported: in Texas in 2000. About 14-million blood transfusions are performed every year.

The suit also alleges the blood bank and Helen Ellis failed to notify the patient of the risks of infection and mishandled the blood.

Neither the hospital nor the blood bank would comment on the suit because neither had seen it Thursday evening. The blood bank has denied wrongdoing. In a statement, Helen Ellis expressed sympathy for the HIV-infected recipient.

Tampa lawyer Steve Barnes, of the firm Abrahamson & Uiterwyk, filed the suit on behalf of the recipient and his 6-month-old son. To protect their confidentiality, they are named as John Doe Sr. and John Doe Jr. The co-counsel is the Kennedy Law Group. The other transfusion recipient who was infected with HIV has been identified only as a bay area resident in his or her 60s.

Despite the infections, local hospitals on Thursday said patients were not expressing concern about the safety of the blood supply, nor were they canceling elective surgeries. Few even asked about it.

"We were geared up to answer questions, but we never really got any," said John Dunn, spokesman at Tampa General Hospital.