Charges by the Food and Drug Administration that the American Red Cross has a "flawed" system for screening blood infected with AIDS or hepatitis should not be used to throw suspicion on all Red Cross supplies of donated blood.
The FDA complaints arose last week after a monthlong inspection of the Portland, Ore., Red Cross chapter. The FDA said it found numerous violations of procedures and raised the possibility that tainted blood could have slipped through the system, although there was no evidence that had happened.Officials in the Northwest insist that no contaminated blood has been released for patient use among the 73 hospitals served by the Portland center. But one manager faces disciplinary action and changes have been made in record-keeping procedures.
Earlier, the Charleston, S.C., Red Cross blood center was shut down after officials discovered that workers had put the wrong blood-type labels on four pints of blood. The mistake was discovered before the blood was used, but the existence of procedural problems was verified by the FDA and the center remains closed for the time being.
The problems at the Portland center may be more of a bookkeeping nature than a breakdown of the testing and protection system. Even FDA officials concede that the issue may revolve more around interpretation of records than actual tainted blood.
Yet the report could cause panic among patients who use Red Cross blood and might cripple the nation's blood donation system, which depends heavily on the Red Cross.
Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who made the report public, said he did so because the public has a right to know about the problem. Wyden acknowledges that people might be unnecessarily frightened if there is no real danger but says if it were not released, then the government might be criticized as covering up a problem. This is one of those difficult situations where either choice could be criticized.
Clearly, one cannot be too careful about safeguarding the nation's blood supply at 56 Red Cross centers. Additional steps are being taken to tighten procedures so further problems are avoided.
However, that is not an easy task. Back in 1988, the Red Cross signed an agreement with the FDA to make numerous improvements in its blood program. Safety problems have bothered the program for several years. Red Cross officials admit that they are not fully in compliance, although no harm seems to have been done. Any misidentified blood appears to have been caught before being used.
But the Red Cross should move quickly to make its blood safety procedures as foolproof as possible and to ally public concerns. Blood transfusions are a basic and vital part of modern medicine, and donated blood - always in short supply - must be kept as safe as humanly possible.
In the meantime, the problem should not be blown all out of proportion to the actual risk, which remains small. The Red Cross blood program is a lifesaver and continues to be a valuable community resource.