Thirty years after my OE, how long will mad mad cow disease keep me from giving blood?

Alison Mau



Stuff NZ Newspapers


It was 1990. My hometown Melbourne was grey and boring; the frumpy little sister to Sydney’s spangled swagger. Say you’re from Melbourne, and other Australians would look at you with barely-concealed pity. I’d been a working journalist for five years already, and at 23 it was time to get out and see the world; or at least, the part of it we all flocked to back then. I did what most young Australians and New Zealanders did – headed straight for the UK. At the beginning of the 1990s, penniless Aussies and Kiwis with a few pint-pulling shifts at the local could still find flats in inner-city spaces (I lived in Hampstead, Notting Hill and even among the hushed Mercedes-driving toffs of Belgravia for a while). Yuppies and Dinkies (double income, no kids) were moving into the wasteland of Wapping where a warehouse conversion with river views could be bought for around 250,000 quid. Camden was still grungy, gigs were at The Astoria, the Hammersmith Palais and Earls Court, where I saw Prince play the set of all sets in June 1992. Everyone smoked inside, beers down the pub in the middle of a workday was a perfectly normal habit, and you often had a long walk home when the bus drivers went on strike. Day one in central London was unusual to say the least. As I reached daylight after my first-ever Underground ride on March 31, 1990, tens of thousands of people were rioting in Trafalgar Square in protest of Maggie Thatcher’s poll tax. Class-based politics were on the rise; within two years Michael Heseltine (one of the architects of Thatcher’s political demise in November 1990) had closed a third of Britain’s deep coal mines, with the loss of more than 31,000 jobs. And then there were the cows. Shaking, scrambling, terrifyingly not-OK cows all over the evening news. We learned that Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), an always-fatal neurological disease, was linked to the cost-efficient practice of feeding groundup cattle carcasses back to living cows. The UK Government destroyed more than 4 million cows, and cattle meat products were pulled from export to many countries for at least a decade. It became a scandal with international implications, some of which still echo 30 years down the track. Having lived in London for three years in the 90s, for example, I – along with thousands of other Kiwis – are still banned from giving blood. There are really good reasons for this. The human condition vCJD (a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease), long linked to consumption of cattle meat infected with BSE, is thought to have an incubation period spanning up to 50 years. New Zealand has thankfully never recorded a case of vCJD, and without a vaccine or a cure available, we don’t want one. The NZ Blood Service says there is still no reliable blood tests for vCJD and the possibility of an early case slipping through the net, is understandably unacceptable. When restrictions were introduced in the early 2000s we reportedly lost one in 10 active donors overnight. We were not alone – the US, Ireland, Canada and Australia also banned donations from former UK residents. But slowly, and especially in the past halfdecade, these bans have started to be relaxed. In 2019 the Irish Blood Transfusion Service scrapped restrictions, after a science review showed the risk was ‘‘infinitesimally tiny’’. Up to 10,000 new donors could result, authorities said, in a country where only 3% of the population regularly donate. At the end of last month, Australia also announced that by the end of 2022, it would no longer turn former UK residents away. I’d love to see that happen here. Giving blood is a simple but hugely rewarding experience for the donor and of course, it saves lives. And change may be on the way, the New Zealand Blood Service told me this week – with the emphasis on the may .A review of medical and scientific evidence is underway, including a ‘‘detailed risk assessment for the New Zealand population’’. If the review comes back in favour of scrapping restrictions, Medsafe would have to agree before people like me will be able to donate. The NZBS doesn’t know how many new donors that could generate, but I’d suggest it could be many. New Zealanders care deeply about this public service, a fact demonstrated last month, after a public plea for A+ blood-type donors to replenish stocks which had fallen to critically-low levels. By the end of the month, stocks were back to optimum, a response described by the service as ‘‘phenomenal’’. More blood is always needed. Donating not only saves lives, but it also makes you feel really, really good about yourself. If the vCJD restrictions are relaxed here, I’m planning to be front of the queue to donate.