Why you can’t donate right now
For several years from the late 1980s there was a large outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as ‘mad cow disease’) among cattle in Europe. Most cases were reported in the UK, where there were almost 1,000 new cases per week at the height of the epidemic in January 1993.
The UK has the highest number of confirmed cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), a disease which is thought to be caused by eating products from cows infected with BSE. A small number of people also contracted vCJD through blood transfusions, which is why we can’t take blood donations from anyone who has received a transfusion in the UK since 1980.
We have recently prepared a submission proposing a change to this. Our submission is currently being reviewed, and we look forward to having more to say soon.
Frequently asked questions
Check out answers to frequently asked questions on vCJD:
- Did the disease affect cattle here in Australia?
No, Australia wasn't affected by BSE and remains BSE free.
- What is vCJD?
vCJD is a fatal disease that affects the brain. It has a long incubation period and some people who become infected may not show symptoms for 10 years or more.
- Is vCJD a virus?
vCJD isn’t caused by a virus or bacteria. It’s caused by an abnormally-shaped form of a naturally occurring protein (called a ‘prion’) found in the human body. When they infect a healthy person, the abnormally-shaped prions convert normal proteins to dangerous prions.
- Why don't you test for vCJD?
There isn’t a suitable screening test for blood donors. Because vCJD can be transmitted by blood transfusion, we use this policy to help us reduce the risk of patients getting this disease from a transfusion.
- Why is the time for living in the UK set at six months or more?
This is based on our own previous research when the original deferral was implemented that showed that six months would be enough to reduce the risk without impacting our blood supply. The Australian policy is less strict than most international policies, but similar to other countries like New Zealand, Switzerland, Thailand, Netherlands and Belgium.
- Why does Australia have this rule? I was able to donate blood in the UK.
The UK's blood service follow different medical advice. A large proportion of the UK's population was potentially exposed to BSE. It would seriously affect the sustainability of supply in the UK if all the people who were potentially exposed could not donate. The UK’s blood service instead put in place various precautionary measures to mitigate the risk.
The UK’s national blood service doesn’t have this particular rule because if they stopped everyone who was a resident during this time from donating blood, there would be very few people left in the UK who could donate. The lack of donated blood would be more dangerous for patients there than the chance of contracting vCJD.
Fortunately, Australia has sufficient blood donors to enable this blood donation rule. Many other blood services, including the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore, have similar restrictions on UK donors.
We have recently prepared a submission proposing a change to this donation postponement. Our submission is currently being reviewed, and we look forward to having more to say soon.
- My mother was pregnant with me when she was in the UK but left soon after I was born. Does the time she was pregnant count towards time spent in the UK?
No, if you left the UK before you were 6 months old and you meet our other eligibility criteria, you should still be able to donate.
- I’m a vegetarian – how does this affect me?
The policy still applies. This is because animal products can be present in some apparently vegetarian foods, like:
- gelatin (made from animal bone marrow) which is found in lollies, jelly, icing and glazes
- jams, yoghurt, cream cheese and margarine
- fat-reduced foods
- many wines, beer and juices
- shortening for baked goods
- rennet in cheese
- some refined sugar, and
- some medicines.
- I’m a vegan and don't eat any animal products, so why can’t I donate?
Similar to the situation with vegetarians, foods sold as vegan may have been contaminated with animal products during this time. We know you pay close attention to what you eat, but for the safety of Australia’s patients we apply this policy to anyone that lived in the UK between 1980 and 1996.
- I’m perfectly healthy and haven’t lived in the UK for 20 years or more – why can’t I donate?
While it is true that the cases of vCJD reported to date have had a shorter incubation period (10-15 years) compared to classical CJD, the other form of the disease, there's a theoretical possibility of a ‘second wave’ of vCJD cases. This may happen in people who are less genetically susceptible to it, meaning the disease may have a longer incubation period.
We have recently re-assessed this risk and have prepared a submission proposing a change to this donation wait time. Any changes to blood donation rules are made in consultation with the Australian Regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, and Federal, State and Territory governments.
- Why can I donate organs but not blood?
Very few people donate organs, and because the patients who need them are likely to die without the transplant, the level of risk compared to the potential benefit to the patient is assessed differently.
- Are you likely to change this?
Following a review of the latest medical evidence, we have prepared a submission proposing a change to the wait times for people who currently can’t donate blood because they lived or visited the UK during the vCJD risk period.
Our submission is currently being reviewed by external medical experts, prior to consideration by the Australian regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
We look forward to having more to say about our submission in future.
Lifeblood would like to make it easier for all Australians to give blood, while ensuring Australia’s blood and blood products are as safe as possible for blood recipients.
- Why don’t you separate blood stocks from donors who are not eligible to donate under this policy and give to patients who have lived in UK?
Fortunately, Australia has sufficient blood donors who haven’t lived in the UK during this period that a separate blood stock is not necessary.
- I really want to help! What else can I do?
Your passion can still help save lives. See the other ways you can donate.