US Puts Blood Ban on Soldiers Returning from Iraq

Thursday, October 23, 2003; 9:57 PM

By Paul Simao

ATLANTA (Reuters) - American soldiers returning from Iraq are being told not to give blood for up to one year to prevent the possible spread of a parasite into the U.S. blood supply, federal health officials said on Thursday.

The precautionary ban was ordered by the Department of Defense and the nation's largest association of blood banks following an outbreak of cutaneous leishmaniasis among U.S. soldiers serving in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan.

Leishmaniasis, which is endemic in the Middle East, tropics and some parts of southern Europe, is usually spread by the bite of sand flies. Those infected develop painless skin lesions that can, if left untreated, cause scars.

Visceral leishmaniasis, the more serious form of the disease, can damage internal organs and cause death.

The new blood donor restrictions will apply to soldiers for 12 months after their last day in Iraq, according to a report published on Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The lengthy deferral is due to the difficulty of detecting the parasite responsible for leishmaniasis, which can incubate for several months and produce no symptoms or only mild illness in those infected.


It also can survive for up to 25 days in blood stored under normal conditions, according to the Department of Defense's Armed Services Blood Program office. There are no reports of infections occurring through blood transfusions in the United States, where incidence of the disease is rare.

The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million cases of the disease occur each year, mostly in developing nations in Africa.

Between August, 2002 and September, 2003, a total of 22 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan contracted leishmaniasis. All recovered after being treated for three weeks at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Another nine cases have surfaced in the past two months.

Defense officials believe that the majority of the soldiers, who came from different branches of the U.S. military, were infected while serving in areas around the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and An Nassiriya.

Recent tests conducted by the U.S. military found that more than 1 percent of sand flies in Iraq carried the parasite.

Although the ban will remove thousands of servicemen from the rolls of blood donors, many of these would already have been excluded because of the military's existing blood ban for soldiers returning from areas where malaria was endemic.

There is no vaccine or medication to prevent the disease, and those infected are banned for life from donating blood.
© 2003 Reuters