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'Mad cow' scare over blood buys

London, Sept. 27: India may have received blood products possibly infected with the human form of 'mad cow disease' from Britain, it was reported in London today.

Sources at the Indian High Commission in London said nine vials of albumin had been sent to India but since this was a very small quality, the directorate-general of health services in India was unable to track down the samples which could have been exported directly by one firm in the UK to another in India.

According to a high commission spokesman, India does not import blood except through the Red Cross. But blood products can be imported by firms in India sometimes for research.

'Nine vials was not a government to government transaction,' the spokesman said.

The department of health in London would not identify the countries to which the suspect samples had been exported but a spokeswoman said: 'We are being transparent and informing the countries so that they can take follow-up action and assess the risks.'

She added: 'There is no known screening for vCJD (the human form of mad cow disease). We are doing a lot of research and have sent out 6,000 letters to patients who have had transfusions in the 1980s and 1990s.'

She said it was possible that the products exported abroad were not infected but the British government had decided to inform recipients of the potential risks.

The Times newspaper today reported that 'Britain has exported blood products that could be contaminated with the human form of mad cow disease to at least 11 countries, raising fears of further transmission of the deadly condition'.

It said that officials last week contacted five of the countries identified as most at risk from the imported blood products, which were donated by nine persons who died from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).

The warnings have been issued after two British cases, discovered in the past year, where people are thought to have contracted the brain- wasting disease from blood transfusions.

The government has been accused of 'lethal secrecy' after refusing to identify publicly the five nations, which have been the subject of risk assessments by the Health Protection Agency.

The five countries come from a longer list of 11 ' including Ireland, Russia, India and Brazil ' to which Britain exported the suspect products in the late 1990s, the Times added.

Of the more than 150 people worldwide who have died of the disease to date, 143 have been from the UK.

Frances Hall, secretary of the Human BSE Foundation that represents the families of victims, told the Times that the government's refusal to reveal countries most at risk was irresponsible to the population at large. Hall's son Peter died from the disease at the age of 20 in 1996.

'It is being left to foreign authorities to act as they see fit, but the greatest precautions must be taken at all levels to make sure any possible vCJD infection is not passed on,' she said. 'Britain, sadly, leads the way in vCJD ' it is our affliction ' and we should be taking full responsibility for it. This disease is a death sentence and we must take every possible precaution.'

Revelations of the export list have emerged after an announcement by Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, that 6,000 British patients who had a theoretical risk of vCJD infection ' having received blood products from donations from the nine vCJD donors ' were being contacted.

The patients have been banned from donating blood, tissue or organs and will have to tell their doctors and dentists before having any future treatment.

Britain stopped exporting blood products in 1999 in the wake of concerns about the possible transmission of vCJD. Since 1998, all blood products used in Britain have been imported from America.

If India is to follow the example of the UK, the authorities will need to track down the nine vials and check whether their contents have been prescribed to patients. Judging by the initial reaction of the authorities in India, it may not be easy tracking down the missing vials.

'We need to have the batch numbers and whether they were sent for a specific purpose,' said a well-known Bengali doctor in London with government connections in India. 'There are only a limited number of UK companies which make albumin products.'

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