Problems with Red Cross blood services

Published 21 July 2008

Despite persisting criticism of the way the Red Cross collects and process blood for the U.S. blood supply, serious problems persist, threatening the health of Americans

For fifteen years, the American Red Cross has been under a federal court order to improve the way it collects and processes blood. In a detailed, and alarming, New York Times report, Stephanie Strom writes that despite $21 million in fines since 2003 and repeated promises to follow procedures intended to ensure the safety of the nation’s blood supply, the organization continues to fall short. The situation has proved so frustrating that in January the commissioner of the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) attended a Red Cross board meeting — a first for a commissioner — and warned members that they could face criminal charges for their continued failure to bring about compliance, according to three Red Cross officials who attended the meeting and requested anonymity because Red Cross policy prohibits public discussion of its meetings with regulators. “If fear is a motivator, we’re happy to help out in that way,” said Eric Blumberg, deputy general counsel at the Food and Drug Administration, though he declined to confirm what the commissioner, Andrew von Eschenbach, said at the meeting.

Some critics, including former Red Cross executives, have even suggested breaking off the blood services operations from the rest of the organization, as the Canadian Red Cross did a decade ago. The problems, described in more than a dozen publicly available F.D.A. reports — some of which cite hundreds of lapses — include shortcomings in screening donors for possible exposure to diseases; failures to spend enough time swabbing arms before inserting needles; failures to test for syphilis; and failures to discard deficient blood.  In some cases, the lapses have put the recipients of blood at risk for diseases like hepatitis, malaria, and syphilis. According to the FDA, the Red Cross has repeatedly failed to investigate the results of its mistakes, meaning there is no reliable record of whether recipients were harmed by the blood it collected.