A new set of voluntary rules will standardize the handling of Canadian blood as it moves "vein to vein" from the donor to the recipient, fulfilling one of the recommendations of the Krever inquiry into tainted blood.
If adopted, the standards announced Wednesday would mean that donations, transfusions and the entire process in between are conducted according to the best practices currently in force anywhere in the country, theoretically making the blood supply safer.
Officials hope that the move will provoke more blood donations as Canadians become more confident in the system.
(According to a recent Léger survey, more than one-quarter of Canadians say they plan to donate blood, but only 3.5 per cent actually do so. The same survey found that one-fifth of Canadians say they would be more likely to donate blood if there was better regulation.)
But the good-news announcement Wednesday left officials scrambling to deny that there was anything currently wrong with the blood system, which was accused of reckless negligence during the blood scandals of the 1980s and '90s.
Dr. Barbara Hannach, medical director of Canadian Blood Services (CBS), said that citizens had regained a "remarkable" level of confidence in the blood system since those dark days.
She said that three-quarters of Canadians believe it is safe to receive blood and almost 90 per cent believe it is safe to give blood. A Gallup survey in 1996 found that only 7 per cent of Canadians would choose to receive blood from the Red Cross, which then performed the functions of the CBS.
"There can always be improvements," Dr.Hannach conceded at a Toronto news conference detailing the new standards.
Others at the press briefing agreed.
"The standard is designed ... to maintain and enhance the quality of Canada's blood supply," said John Walter, senior director of standards development at the group that produced the guidelines. "It's not that there were gaps that needed to be filled."
The officials said that the standards would not necessarily lead to any changes visible to the public but that Canadians should gradually become more confident, knowing that there is a stronger apparatus of regulation behind the system.
Dr. John Freedman, director of transfusion medicine at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital, said that the recommendations may less effect on the donation end than the transfusion end.
In particular, autologous blood collection (when blood is saved for one's own use later) will be more strictly controlled. Some hospitals do not now test that blood, under the logic that it will ultimately be returned to the supplier. All hospitals subscribing to the new standards would be required to test such blood.
The blood system fell into disrepute when it became clear that diseases such as HIV and hepatitis had been allowed to infect the supply. An inquiry headed by Justice Horace Krever recommended dozens of measures intended to prevent recurrence of such a situation.
The Krever recommendations included a call for nationwide standards. Health Canada ultimately commissioned the Canadian Standards Association to develop such a standard.