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Questions and Answers
about Blood Transfusions

This fact sheet is adapted from information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Is West Nile virus (WNV) transmitted by blood transfusion or organ donation?

A recent investigation has identified transplanted organs as the source of WNV infection in four recipients of organs from a single donor. How the organ donor became infected is unknown. The organ donor might have become infected from a mosquito bite or possibly acquired the infection through transfusion; an investigation of the numerous transfusions received by the organ donor is ongoing. Since the report of these cases, CDC has been informed of other patients who developed WNV infection within several weeks of receiving blood products or organs. Investigations are ongoing to determine whether WNV was transmitted by transfusion or transplantation in any of these cases.

What is being done about the possibility of transfusion-related WNV transmission?

CDC, FDA, blood collection agencies, and state and local health departments are investigating possible cases of WNV transmission through blood transfusion and organ transplantation. For cases currently under investigation, any remaining blood products from donors whose blood was transfused to patients with confirmed or suspected WNV infection have been withdrawn and efforts are underway to contact these donors as well as other recipients of blood products from these donors for follow up.

As part of the investigation, CDC has asked that physicians notify public health authorities of any patients who develop symptoms of WNV infection within 4 weeks of receiving a blood transfusion or organ transplantation. In addition, patients with WNV infection whose symptoms begin in the weeks preceding blood or organ donation should also be reported. Prompt reporting of these persons will help facilitate withdrawal of potentially infected blood components.

Should people avoid donating blood or getting blood transfusions or organ transplants?

Blood is lifesaving and is currently in short supply. Donating blood is safe, and we encourage blood donation now and in the future. Approximately 4.5 million persons receive blood or blood products annually. Although persons needing blood transfusions or organ transplants should be aware of the risk for WNV infection, the benefits of receiving needed transfusions or transplants outweigh the potential risk for WNV infection.

How can blood banks avoid collecting blood from donors who may have West Nile virus?

On August 17, FDA issued an alert to blood banks and organizations to be vigilant in excluding individuals who may have early symptoms of West Nile virus from donating blood. Most people who have West Nile virus do not show symptoms, making it difficult to defer them from donation. However, some individuals develop minor symptoms of fever and headache. Blood banks need to be vigilant to defer all of those who may have minor illnesses, especially in areas where West Nile virus is most active.

If a person has had West Nile virus, can they still donate blood?

With West Nile virus infection, the viremia usually is transient, and people clear the virus very quickly. Blood centers will take precautions (see preceding question and answer) to be sure that donors who have been diagnosed with West Nile virus have fully recovered before donating.

If I recently had a transfusion or transplant, should I be concerned about getting West Nile virus?

You should be aware of the potential risk for WNV infection and the need to monitor your health. If you have symptoms of West Nile virus or other concerns you should contact your physician. However, it is important to remember that a large number of WNV infections due to mosquito bites have occurred among persons in the United States this year. By chance alone, some of these persons will have received blood transfusions and/or organ transplantations. Recent receipt of a blood transfusion or organ transplantation by a person with WNV infection does not necessarily implicate the transfusion/transplantation as the source of infection.

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Illinois Department of Public Health
535 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, Illinois 62761
Phone 217-782-4977
Fax 217-782-3987
TTY 800-547-0466
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