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Keywords:

  • blood transfusion;
  • factor replacement;
  • haemophilia;
  • prion;
  • transmission;
  • variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease

Summary.  In the last decade, a new variant of the human prion disease Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (now known as variant CJD or vCJD) was identified and causally linked to dietary exposure to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) during the 1980s and early 1990s. Preliminary studies in animal models suggest that prions can be transmitted by blood. Based on two recent reports of iatrogenic vCJD transmission by blood transfusion in humans, a Department of Health-sponsored risk assessment warned that recipients of plasma therapies are now at risk of contracting vCJD from potentially infected donors. It is believed that all the population may be susceptible to vCJD infection, although clinical cases have so far occurred only in methionine homozygotes at codon 129 in the human prion protein gene. A non-invasive blood-based diagnostic assay is urgently needed. Because the incubation period may be upwards of 40 years and there is no reliable screening test, it is currently unknown how many people may be in an asymptomatic phase of vCJD infection in the UK. However, there remains a distinct possibility that some infected patients may never develop clinical symptoms but will remain asymptomatic carriers who can potentially transmit the disease to other individuals. Therefore, screening of infectious individuals will be a critical component for individuals who rely on blood transfusions and/or blood therapies. In the absence of screening tests or effective therapies to treat this disease, a formidable worldwide public health challenge lies ahead to prevent new infections, accurately assess infection rates and treat infected patients.