Probe awaits results of tests
The cause of an elderly woman's death is still undetermined.
By PETER H. MILLIKEN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Officials at St. Elizabeth Health Center and the American Red Cross are hoping to receive test results next week from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory in the case of an elderly woman who died in the hospital earlier this week.
She had received a blood transfusion that may have been contaminated with a tick-borne parasite, a hospital spokeswoman said.
The Atlanta-based CDC was testing samples of blood the woman received from the hospital blood bank and the American Red Cross, said Tina Creighton, hospital public relations specialist. "They've taken every precaution here to ensure that the blood supply is safe," Creighton said.
She added that the cause of death of the woman, who was 82 or 83 years old, is still undetermined, and that it's uncertain whether the parasite that affected the woman came from the blood supply. The parasite, which is most often transmitted to humans by the bites of infected ticks, can lie dormant within someone until his or her immune system is compromised, Creighton said Friday. The parasite, known as Babesia, attacks red blood cells and causes a malarialike illness called babesiosis.
"We're cooperating with everyone we need to cooperate with, such as the CDC," said Karen Kelley, communications and marketing manager for the Red Cross' Cleveland-based Northern Ohio Blood Services Region. The region covers 19 Northeast Ohio counties, including Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties. Multiple donors contributed to the blood products the woman received, Kelley said.
When the Red Cross is notified that an illness may have been transmitted by its blood supply, it identifies all the donors involved, blocks all blood products from those donors from being transfused into anyone else and contacts the donors.
In such an investigation, it would then ask the donors if they've traveled to areas with a high incidence of deer ticks, such as New England. If they've been to such an area, it would test their blood for Babesia. If they are found to be infected, they won't be allowed to donate blood again, she explained.
Neither the Red Cross, nor any other blood banks, routinely test donated blood for Babesia, Kelley said. There is no test approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for mass screening of blood donations for the parasite, she added.
Babesiosis is extremely rare; almost all patients recover from it; and fatalities from it are extremely rare, and most of the deaths are among those with impaired immune systems, Kelley said. No vaccine against this disease is available.
About three cases of malaria a year might be transmitted nationally through the blood supply, and the number of babesiosis cases transmitted through the blood supply is even lower, Kelley said.
The Red Cross asks all potential donors on a written questionnaire each time they appear at a blood drive whether they've ever had babesiosis. If their answer is yes, they are permanently disqualified from donating blood, Kelley said.
Symptoms of babesiosis include fatigue, appetite loss, fever, sweats, chills, muscle aches and headache. Blood drive personnel measure each potential donor's body temperature and blood pressure at each drive and ask each potential donor how he or she is feeling. Complaints of chills or an achy feeling would disqualify someone from donating that day, Kelley said.