Dr. Alfred Katz Says Fear, Not Aids, Is Causing a Red Cross Blood Loss

updated 07/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In her unquiet death, Lorraine DeSantis affected more people than she had in her life. On May 6, complaining of nausea, weight loss and vaginal bleeding, the 55-year-old woman was admitted to Nassau Hospital in Mineola, N.Y. By June 9 she was dead. Her passing would normally have attracted little attention. But Lorraine DeSantis died of the wrong disease at the wrong time. The diagnosis was AIDS. The aftermath was panic.

Unlike virtually all of the 644 people who have died in the U.S. of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, Lorraine DeSantis was not homosexual, Haitian, hemophiliac or drug addicted. But three years ago she received four units of donated blood during cardiac bypass surgery. There already were a dozen reported cases in which transfusion recipients later developed AIDS. But the DeSantis case, no doubt because she was identified as a grandmother (she also could have been described correctly as an ex-barmaid and a divorcée), created a media stir. Soon hospital phones in the Northeast lit up with calls from anxious recipients of blood donations. Says Nassau County's Deputy Health Commissioner, Dr. Norman Schell, "When you write a headline that says, '55-Year-Old Granny Dies of AIDS,' you can scare a lot of people."

But health officials are far from ready to blame blood for Lorraine DeSantis' death. AIDS can also be transmitted from bisexual men to heterosexual women by close personal contact; doctors are not sure exactly how the mechanism of transmission works. Since records of all U.S. blood donors are kept for three to five years, health officials have begun tracking down the four people who gave Lorraine DeSantis blood, as well as investigating her private life in the belief that she may, after all, have contracted the disease from another source.

Still, AIDS hysteria is gravely threatening the nation's blood bank system. During June, according to Red Cross figures, donations fell 16 percent below normal. Says Dr. Alfred Katz, executive director of the Red Cross Blood Services program in Washington: "Donors and recruiters have told us that one of the reasons collections have been off so much is that people have made a loose association between AIDS and blood donations."

According to Katz, a 45-year-old New York-born hematologist who has run the Red Cross program for two years, AIDS hysteria is potentially as lethal as the disease itself. No one has yet proved conclusively that any blood recipients who developed AIDS contracted it from donated blood. The 12 cases now on record involved blood donated before last January. Since then, Katz argues, blood banks have turned away homosexuals and Haitians, and so the chance of contracting the disease from donated blood should now be less than one in a million. By contrast, if the amount of blood donated in the U.S. falls much below the normal 12 million pints per year, the shortage could spell doom for many of the three million accident victims and surgical patients whose lives are saved every year with transfusions.

The Red Cross collects about half of the nation's annual blood donations; local blood banks account for the rest. Both now find themselves facing un-welcome competition. In Roslyn, N.Y.—near Lorraine DeSantis' hometown—members of the Roslyn Country Club have set up a private blood co-op whose members pledge to donate pints to each other in emergencies. Similar programs are springing up elsewhere. Such schemes provide no real protection, since AIDS carriers without visible symptoms could give tainted blood to these co-ops as easily as to any other blood bank. As Yale hematologist Joseph Bove put it: "Suppose you have a father who's pressuring his son to give him blood, and the son is afraid to tell his father the truth?" Programs like Roslyn's, moreover, serve to deflect potential donors from existing blood banks.

The fear that giving blood may cause AIDS appears unfounded; all American blood banks use needles only once to draw blood and then dispose of them. "There seems to be this vague connection in the public mind between needles and AIDS," says Katz. In fact, the only reported transmissions of the disease by needles have been among drug users sharing syringes.

There are minuscule risks in transfusion. Hemophiliacs, for instance, may get AIDS more often because they receive concentrated blood products from thousands of donors. But Katz is convinced that the process is as safe as humanly possible. His advice to potential blood recipients is unequivocal: "If you need an operation, you should have it; if you need a transfusion, you should have it. The danger of not having it is much greater than the danger of a transfusion."

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