Got Blood?

Ah, fall. That time of year when every young man’s fancy turns to football, the upcoming hockey season, and the safety of the nation’s blood supply.

Say what?

It’s true. We’re having yet another blood supply scare. They seem like they’re coming annually now. HIV, Hepatitus C, Mad Cow, and now West Nile virus has been found in the nation’s blood supply. If that hasn’t sufficiently scared you, you ought to check out ‘Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce’.

If you know me well, you know that my weakness in the area of book-buying is history. (History of diamonds, history of pirates, history of cryptography, you get the idea.) So it was with some trepidation that I purchased and plowed through Blood a few months ago.

What you learn in reading Blood is in fact how little we actually have known about it until the last 50 years, which is a mere speck in time compared to how long humans have had blood in our veins. And as my examples above show, we still don’t have a handle on it.

The book covers the details of the history of blood and blood research, and then quickly moves into the history of the last 50 years, focusing on how our nation’s blood supply works, and how the various blood supply crises came about. What becomes truly apparent as the book progresses is that the safety of our blood supply is an illusion. There is no way to tell if blood is safe, and even when a scare such as West Nile comes out, they cannot (or are not willing to) destroy all stored blood and start over with screened blood.

The reasons for this are varied, but they are a mix of concerns over shortage, cost, and a lack of good, inexpensive screening tests. Even today we still don’t have an affordable screening test for West Nile that could be rolled out to the nation’s blood banks. The fact of the matter is that when public officials say, “The blood supply is safe”, what they really mean is that “We know there is probably some tainted blood, but we think it’s so few units that your odds of being infected are low.”
Of course they were horribly wrong about HIV in the blood supply in many countries, but I digress.

Needless to say, this book is not for the mildly squeamish. While there are not gratuitous descriptions or photos of blood-related activities, spending a lot of time thinking about blood might be enough to push some people over the edge.