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Blood donated in the St. Louis area is undergoing testing for West Nile virus for the first time.
Blood centers in St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Diego and Charlotte, N.C., were among the first to conduct the testing, which started Monday as part of a national study.
In the St. Louis region, the American Red Cross and Gateway Blood Association are now screening for the virus. Together the two groups collect and distribute at least 90 percent of the area's blood supply.
The test is still in a study phase but is expected to be a reliable way to detect the virus, said Joyce Eisel, president and chief executive officer of the Gateway Blood Association.
The clinical trial under way here involves screening donated blood with a technology known as nucleic acid testing. The technology already is being used to detect HIV.
Screening blood is the latest indication of the impact of West Nile virus on public health. The virus is transmitted to humans through mosquito bites and has swept rapidly across the United States since it surfaced on the East Coast in 1999.
Federal officials confirmed in October that the virus could be transmitted through blood transfusions, a realization that accelerated efforts to develop a test to screen donated blood.
Experts say the risk of becoming infected from a blood donation is quite low. But most people infected with the virus don't have symptoms, so it can be difficult to identify them before they give blood.
Nationwide, 4,156 people were known to be infected last year, including 884 in Illinois and 168 in Missouri. Sixty-four people in Illinois and seven people in Missouri died. Of the states, Illinois was the hardest hit last year.
Of the 2,942 infections that developed into West Nile meningitis and encephalitis last year, only 27 - less than 1 percent - resulted from the transplant of an infected organ or transfusion of infected blood, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Giving blood doesn't put the donor at risk.
As of June 25, some 26 states reported West Nile virus activity in birds, horses or mosquitoes. So far this year, no human cases have been reported. But health officials are predicting that this year will be a repeat of last year.
"Our donors have to consent to having their blood tested for West Nile or we won't collect their blood," said Christine Bales, chief executive officer of the Missouri-Illinois regional office of the Red Cross.
Donors who test positive for the virus will be notified.
The Food and Drug Administration will review data from the trial after 250,000 blood samples have been tested and determine whether the test is reliable, Eisel said.
Starting last fall, blood banks stopped taking donations from people who had experienced fever and headache, the most common symptoms of West Nile, in the two weeks before they tried to give blood.
"We've already started having people come to blood drives who have experienced symptoms within the last two weeks, so we've had to defer them," Eisel said. "We see this as another factor that will be affecting our ability to collect an adequate amount of blood."
(c) 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.