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SoCal blood banks now screening for Zika

VMW(Village Malaria Worker) Long Vuthy(right), 40, takes a blood sample from Yim Pros(left) in Phnom Dambang Village in Cambodia on September 20, 2011.
Photo by Gates Foundation via Flickr Creative Commons
VMW(Village Malaria Worker) Long Vuthy(right), 40, takes a blood sample from Yim Pros(left) in Phnom Dambang Village in Cambodia on September 20, 2011.

Southern California's major blood banks say they have followed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recommendation to start screening all donations for the Zika virus.

On Aug. 26 the FDA issued new guidelines suggesting that California and 10 other states start checking blood for Zika within four weeks. 

The California branches of the American Red Cross implemented the new test on Sept. 6, according to spokeswoman April Phillips. The Lifestream Blood Bank, which provides the lion's share of blood supplies in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and the Houchin Community Blood Bank, which provides blood services in Kern County, both say they started the Zika screening earlier this month.

The FDA asked the rest of the country to start testing blood for Zika by Thanksgiving.

The FDA's recommendation replaces advice it issued in February, which stated that travelers should wait four weeks after their return to donate blood if they had visited a country with active Zika virus transmission, or had sexual contact with someone who’d gone to one of these countries in the previous three months.

The blood banks say with the new screening protocol, those travelers no longer need to delay giving blood.

The FDA has not yet approved the Zika blood screen, but the agency is already using the test in areas with active transmission of the virus, including Florida and Puerto Rico. It pointed to the test's strong performance in identifying infected donations in those locations as one of the reasons it recommended that blood banks in the rest of the country start using it.

Because the test is still considered experimental, minors wishing to donate blood will need parental consent, according to officials at Houchin and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 

Blood banks already screen donations for several other viruses, including HIV and syphilis. 

Adding the Zika test was "not a big deal" for the San Diego Blood Bank, says spokeswoman Claudine Van Gonka. In fact, she says, it could benefit the organization, since it's no longer required to automatically defer all donors who have recently traveled to nearby Mexico.

Implementing the new test in just a few weeks was an "extremely painful change" for Cedars-Sinai, says Shawn Wittmier, the hospital's supervisor of blood donor services.

He is also concerned that the minor consent process "is likely to reduce the number of consenting donors, as they now need to consent to being a human research subject in order to donate blood."