South Texas Blood & Tissue Center begins testing donations for Zika virus

Blood bank is only one of a few centers approved by FDA to conduct test
July 12, 2016

As part of its commitment to ensuring the safest blood supply possible, the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center (STBTC) has begun testing blood donations for the Zika virus. STBTC is one of only a handful of blood centers in the nation currently testing for Zika.

“We believe this is the best way to safeguard the people of South Texas who need blood transfusions,” said Elizabeth Waltman, chief operating officer of STBTC. “Taking a precautionary approach will optimize patient safety and help maintain blood availability for everyone.”

Testing for the Zika virus is being done by QualTex Laboratories, which like STBTC is a subsidiary of San Antonio-based nonprofit BioBridge Global, with testing labs here and in Norcross, Georgia. Zika testing is being done in the QualTex labs in Georgia, because of space and capacity requirements for the testing equipment.

The Zika virus test is a new technology developed by the biotech Roche. It has been approved for clinical trial by the Food and Drug Administration under an investigational new drug (IND) protocol, which means donors must give written consent for their blood to be tested, and results will be used in research.

“We’re urging anyone who donates to sign the consent form,” Waltman said. “The testing does not change anything about the donation process, except for this one extra signature. And it will go a long way toward keeping everyone in South Texas safer.”

Donations still will be accepted from those who do not sign, except from people who have traveled to Zika-affected areas. If someone has traveled to a Zika-affected area and chooses not to sign the consent, that person must wait 28 days after returning to the U.S. to donate. Donations will be accepted from those who have traveled to Zika-affected areas and sign the consent form.

 “The ideal situation is to have universal testing and for all our donors to sign the consent form,” Waltman said. “The more Zika-tested blood we have on our shelves for patients, the less risk there is for everyone.”

About 80 percent of people who have contracted Zika show no symptoms, which makes testing blood donations all the more vital. A person who feels well may actually have the virus while donating blood. And unlike other mosquito-borne viruses such as West Nile, Zika can be transmitted through sexual contact, which poses an additional public health risk.

What researchers are learning about the Zika virus continues to evolve. To protect the blood supply, it’s important to get ahead of the curve to detect infection through testing, which was an important lesson from the HIV epidemic in the ’80s.

“The blood supply often is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to detecting infectious-disease outbreaks,” said Dr. Rachel Beddard, medical director of BioBridge Global. “Because of the extensive testing done on blood donations, infections that otherwise might not have been caught show up, and we can stop that blood from getting into the supply for patients. Our preference, as health care providers, is to have all donations tested for Zika.”

Zika virus infections have been linked to a birth defect called microcephaly, in which a baby is born with an underdeveloped head and brain, as well as other problems in newborns. It also has been tied to a rare neurological condition called Guillain-Barré Syndrome in adults. Symptoms of Zika virus infection can include a fever, rash, joint pain and/or red eyes.

No active transmission of the virus has been reported in the United States, but the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries it is endemic to the southern parts of the country, including South Texas. The virus also can be spread via sexual contact and blood transfusion.

The signature of a parent or guardian will be required on the consent form for donors younger than 18. Any donor who tests positive for Zika will be notified.

Donations are critical during the summer months because of short supplies nationwide. Nationally, blood donations are at their lowest point since 1980, and at STBTC they are down by 21 percent since 2012.

All donors must present identification. Anyone who is 16 years old and weighs at least 120 pounds (with a parental consent form), or 17 years old and weighs at least 110 pounds, and is in good general health may donate blood. 

News about the Zika virus is available on the BioBridge Global website, and general information is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.