On Friday, United Blood Services had another blood drive. The bus was parked outside of our office building for the entire day. I walked past it several times, but didn't even bother to go in.
I'm not boycotting UBS. In fact, every time I had to walk past them, it made me a little depressed. You see, it was about five years ago that UBS informed me that they no longer required my services.
This isn't because I was in Kuwait after the first Gulf War; even though I had to patrol through vehicle remains known to contain depleted uranium rounds, they really didn't care about that. And it didn't have anything to do with being one of the first units into Iraq after the invasion in 2003; that, it seems, wasn't even worth noting.
It's not because of anything in my private life. I've never had sex with another man, I've never had hepatitis and I'm not a drug user. (OK, the odd molecule of THC might have found its way into my body once or twice; let's not make a big deal out of it.)
It's because I lived in Germany.
You see, the FDA has decided that anyone who's lived a cumulative six months in Europe (or three months in the UK) can no longer give blood. Because, despite not having any evidence that there's any danger to anybody, the FDA is so ass-clenchingly frightened of mad cow disease that they're going to allow the US blood supply to become dangerously depleted.
Mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy - BSE - or new variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease - vCJD or nvCJD) was first identified in England in 1984. What happened was, although cattle are herbivores, a little extra protein makes them fatten up faster. Throughout most of the world, this protein has come from soybeans.
But soybeans don't grow well in Europe, and cattle farmers there began supplementing their cow's diets with some various waste products nobody was using - mostly bone meal, and occasionally organs that never caught on as food.
(For example, brains, which haven't ever been popular anywhere but the American Midwest, where diners near the stockyards of St Louis started serving batter-dipped, fried brain slices as sandwiches; their popularity has, unaccountably died out except in a few smaller establishments.)
To be clear, BSE is the name of the disease when it's in cattle; vCJD is the disease in humans. In either case, the disease essentially chews holes in the brain tissue, making it look like a sponge (hence, "spongiform"). But under either name, it qualifies as a TSE (transmissible spongiform encephalopathy).
The problem is that Mad Cow is transmitted by prions, which are neither a virus nor a bacteria, but more of a rogue protein. One that survives, incidentally, at remarkably high temperatures. And there hasn't been enough study of prions for scientists to really have a firm grasp on their properties.
There have been some suggestions that a change in British law allowing for lower-temperature sterilization of the beefy by-products was the culprit. But the British government has studied the problem pretty extensively, and determined that "changes in process could not have been solely responsible for the emergence of BSE, and changes in regulation were not a factor at all."
There are other diseases passed by prions: Scrapie, for instance, is similar to BSE, but affects sheep and goats; it's been known about since the eighteenth century, but doesn't seem to jump the species barrier.
In the Fifties, there was an epidemic of Kuru among New Guinea natives; kuru is a neurodegenerative disease (hmmm... so it makes the brain go bad...), and is only passed, as far as anybody can tell, through cannibalism. So that's a native cultural tradition that maybe we shouldn't respect...
However, there have only been 218 identified cases of vCJD worldwide since it was identified. Not exactly the epidemic that some people think.
When I was younger, I donated on a regular basis. Many people in the military see the importance of donating blood. Of course, since military members and their families are one of the most common types of Americans who live overseas for extended periods, this has taken thousands of potential blood donors off of the market.
And with the national blood supply dangerously low, this may be a policy that puts live at risk for little or no reason.
(It's not just blood products that have been affected, either. Sperm banks have been unable to import replacements to refill depleted stocks of once-popular Nordic sperm.)
So, on Friday, I walked past the Bloodmobile, a little sadder each time.