People across the globe are experiencing an unprecedented time of uncertainty as COVID-19 continues to spread. However, this pandemic has also brought about something wonderful: people stepping up to help their fellow citizens. But there are concerns about blood donation. Who is allowed to donate? Can patients with Lyme disease donate blood?
What is Lyme Disease?
According to the CDC, Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness, where humans contract the disease after being bitten by a tick infected with Borrelia burgdorferi.
The symptoms of Lyme disease can mimic over 100 other diseases. As a result, many cases are still undiagnosed. Symptoms include a rash, headache, fever, and body aches. If left untreated, Lyme can lead to heart and nervous system disorders.
People with Lyme disease are also at risk of contracting other parasitic or tick-borne illnesses. For example, the National Organization of Rare Disorders found that up to 25% of individuals with babesiosis, a rare disease that affects red blood cells, also had Lyme disease. Learn more about babesiosis here.
Stages: Identifying Disease Progression
There are three stages of Lyme disease. First, “early localized” Lyme is diagnosed and treated within 1-4 weeks of exposure. During this time, some patients may remain asymptomatic. Others may experience fever, flu-like symptoms, or the tell-tale rash. The treatment is a 28-day course of antibiotics.
The second stage is “early disseminated,” which means it is diagnosed and treated within 1-4 months of exposure. Patients in this stage will experience more severe symptoms. Dr. Tania Dempsey states that at this point:
“ the infection has likely infiltrated the joints, nervous system, and other parts of the body.”
Patients in the early disseminated stage should seek multi-drug antibiotics to treat the infection. Letting it progress could lead to chronic Lyme disease.
In the “late disseminated” stage, Lyme is diagnosed and treated after 4 months of exposure. At this stage, patients may experience damage to the heart and joints that could be irreversible. Treatment requires multi-drug antibiotics, as the bacteria causing the disease may become resistant to one to two antibiotics. Learn more about this requirement in a Johns Hopkins study on treating Lyme with three antibiotics.
The Controversy of Blood Donation
Admittedly, some tick-borne diseases can transmit to new carriers through blood transfusion. Lyme is not considered a threat for blood-transferred diseases. However, researchers see another potential reason to worry: an increasing growth rate, with up to 300,000 new infections each year.
Lyme disease occurs 6x as much as HIV/AIDS, but with Lyme research receiving less than 1% of the funding given to HIV research, there is simply not enough information on whether Lyme can actually present a threat. This information becomes even more confused when considering the different stages of the disease – from its onset to chronic Lyme disease, or Post Treatment Lyme disease Syndrome (PTLDS).
A 2006 study found that the bacteria causing Lyme disease could be transferred to mice via blood transfusion. However, despite the World Health Organization stating that the disease can survive blood storage temperatures, no cases of Lyme transferred via transfusion have been noted for humans.
The only problem? This doesn’t mean there haven’t actually been cases. There are really no regulations around testing blood donors for Lyme disease, and the current testing isn’t always accurate. Similar conditions caused from Treponema pallidum bacteria require patients to wait one year before blood donation. This suggests that patients with Lyme should either wait longer after treatment to donate, or that additional serologic testing is completed to identify asymptomatic carriers.
So is it safe for patients to donate blood?
Are your symptoms active or resolved? According to the CDC, if you are still actively taking antibiotics as treatment, you are not eligible to donate blood. Some places, like the American Red Cross, have no waiting time for blood donation after finishing treatment. Others, like Vitalint, require patients to complete a 21-day course of antibiotics within 30 days of their original diagnosis.
Whether or not you have symptoms directly contributes to your ability to donate blood. Active symptoms include fever or a rash; if you are experiencing these, do not donate blood. However, if you have symptoms stemming from chronic Lyme disease, such as fatigue or arthritis, that will not stop you from donating.
Ultimately, if you have chronic Lyme disease or any co-infections, or are unclear about your health status, you should not donate blood. If your symptoms have resolved, most donation centers will allow you to donate blood. Please consider speaking to your Lyme specialist to make the most informed decision.