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Red Cross Investigating Blood Contamination In Georgia, North Florida

Two Local Hospitals Quarantined More Than 100 Pints

Feb 1, 2003 | Savannah Morning News

The American Red Cross warned hospitals in Georgia and northern Florida to halt use of some of its blood because it could be contaminated with unidentified white particles.

In the Savannah region, seven hospitals were asked to look for possibly tainted blood. They included: St. Joseph's/Candler, Beaufort Memorial Hospital, Hilton Head Medical Center, East Georgia Regional Medical Center in Statesboro, Meadows Regional Medical Center in Vidalia, and Liberty Regional Medical Center in Hinesville, said Jason Ferrell, Red Cross Coastal District Director in charge of Blood Services, Southern Region.

The unusual particles are not infectious agents, he and other Red Cross officials said, and patients who received blood containing the white particles haven't suffered any harmful effects.

"We still don't exactly know what these particles are," said Chris Hrouda, the Red Cross's chief executive officer for blood services in the southern region.

The Red Cross said it has identified the location of all the possibly contaminated blood and was working with a maker of blood bags and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to find out how the contamination happened. Officials said it is probably not related to sabotage.

"Somebody said, 'What did al-Qaida do with our blood?' But they didn't do anything," Ferrell noted.

Pints of blood are stored carefully, under lock and key, Red Cross officials said.

The problem was "likely with the bags" and not with the blood itself, said Hrouda, adding that only blood in bags manufactured by Baxter International Inc., had been found to be contaminated.

Baxter would not return phone calls from The Associated Press.

In Savannah, Red Cross workers spent part of Friday studying lot numbers of the plastic bags that hold blood. In a warehouse on President Street, they found and quarantined about 1,000 bags in all that didn't have blood in them yet, Ferrell said.

Hospital lab managers also spent part of the morning hunting through blood supplies, looking for lot numbers of blood that could be tainted.

Officials at East Georgia Medical Center and Liberty Regional Medical Center said they didn't find any suspect blood.

But at St. Joseph's/Candler, pathologist Paul Drwiega said he quarantined 60 units of red blood cells and a few units of plasma one third to one half of the hospitals' blood supply.

Though this blood was part of batches that could have been tainted with the white particles, "we did not see anything" in the blood, Drwiega said.

He added that a few patients may have received some of the suspect blood, but they have not suffered any adverse effects.

The pathologist suspected the white particles could have come from either the lining of the plastic bag or some inert coagulant.

In an emergency, "If we had to use the blood, I would still use it," Drwiega said.

The quarantine forced St. Joseph's/Candler into what Drwiega called "conservation mode." The Red Cross is expected to fly in more blood this weekend to replace the quarantined units but until that new blood arrives, he's asked staff to hold off on non-emergency transfusions.

Hilton Head Medical Center was also holding off on non-urgent transfusions Friday, after its staff found and quarantined 41 units of possibly tainted blood.

Spokesperson Kelly Presnell said the hospital expected replacement blood to be flown in over the weekend.

A competing blood bank that serves the Savannah-region, the Florida/Georgia Blood Alliance reported its blood supply was safe and none of its units were contaminated. The Jacksonville, Fla.-based blood bank serves Memorial Health University Medical Center.

The contaminant, which is not organic, can be seen with the naked eye and is practically translucent, said Dr. Christopher D. Hillyer, an Emory University professor who works with the Red Cross. It is not uniform, with some bags containing more than others.

Hillyer said the blood may turn out to be usable, after it is tested for potential problems.

The Red Cross said 110 of the approximately 4,000 units at its regional center in Atlanta were contaminated. The agency provides blood to 140 hospitals in Georgia and northern Florida, but it didn't know how much, if any, of this blood was affected.

Members of the Georgia Hospital Association were advised not use the blood, forcing them to postpone elective surgeries and use backup blood for emergencies. There are 185 hospitals in this association, but not all of them get blood from the Red Cross.

"We're taking more of a cautious approach and putting the blood on hold," said Kevin Bloye, a spokesman with the Georgia Hospital Association. "For some of our hospitals without a large supply of blood in reserve, that's a big problem."

"Blood is available for emergency surgeries," said Marcy Blount, spokeswoman for the Red Cross. "We are asking hospitals not to use some of the blood in their inventories while we are having a quality assurance review."

Emory University Hospital expected to receive blood from outside the region by the afternoon, spokesman Brad Minor said. Because the hospital often faces blood shortages for other reasons, plans were in place to change surgery schedules.

"It hasn't affected any patient care," Minor said. "We've basically rescheduled our surgeries so the ones that don't require blood are in the morning and the ones that do are in the afternoon.

"We deal with blood shortages all the time, so it's nothing new to us."

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