Blood banks throughout Utah have begun testing for a virus that was first identified some 20 years ago in Japan and is slowly finding its way into the United States.

The extremely rare virus, called HTLV1, has been confused with HTLV3 - the deadly AIDS virus. But the medical director of IHC Blood Services stresses that the two viruses have few similarities.Dr. R. Myron Laub said both viruses are in the same family of retro-viruses and they are transmitted in similar ways - through sexual contact, intravenous drug abuse and blood transfusions.

"But that's where the similarity ends. They cause totally different diseases and have totally different incubation periods."

The HTLV3, or AIDS, virus suppresses the body's immune system and opens the system to life-threatening diseases. The virus can act very rapidly. The HTLV1 virus can cause a variety of different diseases, including lymphatic leukemia and a neurological disease that affects the lower extremities.

"It (HTLV1) is not without serious consequences. The problem with the virus is that the time of infection to the time of symptoms has been as long as 20 years," Laub said. "It's therefore difficult to know when the actual exposure occurred."

But because HTLV1 can be transmitted by blood infusions, IHC Blood Services, which supplies blood to more than 35 Utah hospitals, began testing blood for the virus in early December. Routinely, they had already been testing for a host of other communicable diseases, including AIDS and hepatitis.

Stephen K. Miller, IHC Blood Services administrative director, said a step-by-test protocol has been established to ensure that the blood and component inventory are tested as quickly as possible without creating a shortage or having to dispose of critical blood inventory.

By Jan. 12 all units will be tested, he said.

"No units of blood will be thrown away until we are absolutely sure the blood will not be needed," Laub emphasized. "I am not about to throw away blood that could be used to save lives at the chance that the test may be positive when there is such a small risk involved. The risk of going without a transfusion is far greater than receiving a unit that hasn't been tested."

Laub anticipates that only seven or eight people a year will test positively for the HTLV1 virus. "But if there is something we can do to make the blood safer, we should do it."

How safe is Utah's blood?

"It is literally safer now than it has ever been," Laub said.

Thanks to sophisticated testing and a low incidence of AIDS overall and especially among IHC donors, Laub believes there's a 1 in a million chance of a Utahn getting AIDS from a blood transfusion.

That's good news to Utah residents who require more than 6,500 units of whole blood each month to recover from illnesses and injuries.