7-year-old West Nile victim still in hospital

Published: Friday, November 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 31, 2002 at 10:59 p.m.
A 7-year-old victim of West Nile encephalitis, who may have been infected with the virus through a blood transfusion, remained hospitalized at Shands at the University of Florida Thursday afternoon, breathing with the aid of a ventilator.
Gainesville-based LifeSouth Regional Blood Center is still awaiting word from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta on whether any of the blood products received by the boy - whose name has not been released - came from local donors who may themselves have contracted the virus and passed it on through the blood.
Two cases involving donated blood from LifeSouth are under CDC investigation. The other involves a woman in Charlotte, N.C., who received LifeSouth blood products and developed a West Nile-related infection.
"All the donors involved in both the North Carolina case and the potential local infection have had an initial contact, asking them to call us so that we can explain what was going on," said Karen Rhodenizer, speaking for LifeSouth. The center provides blood to all Alachua County hospitals, among 32 medical facilities in North Florida.
"Those we have talked with have been extremely positive. People haven't gotten upset and worried. They are coming in so that we can draw samples to send to the CDC for testing," Rhodenizer said.
The hospitals that received blood products that may have come from a West Nile-infected donor or donors have been very cooperative with the LifeSouth callback, according to Rhodenizer.
"All of the units have been sent back in. They are in quarantine. Now we have to wait for the CDC," she said.
The CDC is running tests on any quarantined blood as well as samples from donors who have been called in, looking for antibodies that indicate the donor has had West Nile virus. Samples are identified with unit numbers; each unit number corresponds to a unit of blood given by a particular donor on a particular date.
State health officials Thursday confirmed the 17th human case of West Nile encephalitis in Florida this year. A 42-year-old Citrus County resident is the latest victim, and the first human case of the West Nile virus in that county.
The Department of Health has now extended the medical alert to include Levy and Jackson counties. Citrus County has been under a medical alert since Oct. 16. The alert now covers 36 counties.
DOH Secretary John Agwunobi reiterated, "Our message is simple but important: Take precautionary measures to prevent being bitten by mosquitoes. Despite cooler weather, people must continue being diligent."
The link between the mosquito-borne virus and blood transfusion has not be confirmed, but to date, the CDC has identified six cases of West Nile encephalitis that have been linked to blood transfusions, while 27 potential cases are still under investigation.
More than 3,300 human infections and 188 deaths from West Nile have been reported this year. The number of people who have actually been infected is probably much higher, since most show no symptoms.
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates all blood banks, issued new recommendations late last week to help blood centers decide when potential donors should be asked to put off giving blood. It also set out guidelines for retrieving and quarantining blood products for donors who develop West Nile illness after they have given blood.
Still to be answered is the question of how long a donor should wait, if they have the virus, before returning to donate blood in order to avoid passing the infection along. Blood banks also must decide what questions to ask donors in order to weed out those who might carry the virus, since most people who contract West Nile will never know it.
Currently, there is no test available to blood banks to screen potential donors for the virus, although the current spate of infections apparently tied to transfusion has intensified research efforts.
How far those efforts have gotten may be revealed late next week, when the FDA has scheduled a two-day workshop on West Nile virus in Bethesda, Md.
Diane Chun can be reached at 374-5041 or chund@ gvillesun.com.

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