Emory Report
August 23, 2004
Volume 57, Number 1


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August 23, 2004
$12M grant to improve blood transfusion safety

BY Holly korschun

Transfusion medicine experts at Emory, the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) and the American Red Cross (ARC) will use a new $12 million grant from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to improve blood-transfusion safety in Kenya, South Africa, Mozambique and Guyana. The goal is to significantly decrease HIV transmission, ameliorating the personal, social, economic and political effects of HIV in those nations.

“HIV is a disaster of enormous proportions in many developing nations, including those in Africa and South America, and blood transfusion plays a significant part in transmission of HIV in those countries,” said Christopher Hillyer, director of Emory’s Transfusion Medicine Program and professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the School of Medicine. Hillyer is AABB vice president and co-principal investigator of the grant, which will provide $12 million over five years.

The United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS estimates 40 million individuals in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV, and 2.5 million of those are children. Five million new individuals in the region were infected with HIV in 2003. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 5–10 percent of global HIV infections worldwide are caused by transfusion of unsafe blood and blood products.

In Africa, however, that percentage is likely much higher because few hospitals regularly test blood products for HIV and fewer than one-third of African countries have transfusion policies, procedures or guidelines to limit HIV transmission.

Karen Shoos Lipton, CEO of AABB, is principal investigator of the grant, and Roger Dodd, executive director of biomedical safety and head of the Transmissible Diseases Department at the ARC’s Jerome H. Holland Laboratory for the Biomedical Sciences, is senior co-investigator. All three primary investigators are recognized authorities in national and international transfusion medicine. Hillyer is slated to become the next president-elect of AABB, taking office as president in 2005.

While the risk of HIV transmission due to blood transfusion in the United States is approximately one in 5 million, this ratio approaches one in 500 in some developing countries, according to Hillyer. Virtually all blood donations in this country are voluntary, and extensive testing programs are in place to detect HIV and hepatitis C virus. In contrast, developing countries often lack basic services necessary for a safe blood supply, including reliable electricity, safe water and passable roads. These factors are essential for testing donors and donated blood, storing blood and rapidly transporting blood for transfusion.

While the majority of U.S. blood transfusions are performed in adults, in developing nations more than half of transfused blood is given to children. The primary reasons for maternal and pediatric transfusions in developing countries are anemia in early childhood or pregnancy, trauma, malaria, sickle cell disease and thalassemia. Cultural and social pressures contribute to a shortage of volunteer donors, and transfused blood often is not tested due to lack of resources, untrained workers or a cultural stigma against HIV awareness.

“Our first step with this new PEPFAR grant will be to send immediate response teams of blood-banking professionals to the four countries to conduct assessments and hold meetings with the ministries of health,” Hillyer said. “We will develop a plan, create standards and conduct training programs that incorporate all elements of transfusion medicine, including basic techniques, testing, record keeping, transportation and the creation of geographic transfusion centers.”