Medical conference panelists blast blood-dumping

Many of the blood donors were 18-to 20-year-old soldiers who were too young to have contracted the AIDS virus in Ethiopia, he asserted.

"They are not a high-risk group," said Michaeli, who was director-general of the Health Ministry from 1984 to 1986 and is now chairman of a health maintenance organization that serves 3.5 million Israelis.

The high-risk group health officials should have focused on, he said, consists of slightly older Ethiopian Jews who know they are infected with HIV yet continue to have sex without condoms.

"Those are not the people who will give blood," he said.

Michaeli spoke during a Saturday night panel discussion titled "The Anguish of a People: HIV and the Blood Supply in Israel and the Plight of the Ethiopian Jews."

The panel was part of the International Conference of Jewish Medical Ethics, which took place at Burlingame's Park Plaza Hotel Feb. 16 to 19. The seventh annual conference was organized by the Institute for Jewish Medical Ethics of the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco.

Unlike many fellow Ethiopian Jews in Israel who have violently protested the blood dumping, panel member Allen Gebre Michael spoke about the situation in a quiet, composed manner.

"We've got to calm things down," said Michael, a research associate at the University of Wisconsin's School of Medicine in Madison. "I have been trying to look to the Torah for explanation, guidance."

Michael disagreed with Israel's handling of the situation but added that he was more worried that Ethiopian Jews are disproportionately affected by AIDS. Israelis need to move beyond the blood controversy and put energy into AIDS treatment and prevention.

"My people are dying," he said. "What comes first…pride or the deaths?"

The panel discussion was added to the conference schedule after the disclosure late last month that the Magen David Adom national blood bank had secretly tossed out donations from Ethiopian Jews for years.

The decision to throw away the blood was described by Israeli government officials as a reaction to statistics showing the HIV-infection rate among Ethiopian Jews was 50 times higher than that of the rest of Israelis.

However, according to the Feb. 22 issue of The Jerusalem Report, the blood disposal may have started in the late 1980s — before HIV was discovered among the Ethiopian immigrants but was known to be spreading through Africa. During the first massive airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984, Michaeli said, not a single Ethiopian Jew was found to be HIV-positive. The virus first appeared among the Ethiopian Jews who came in the second and final airlift, in 1991.

Adding that the government has identification numbers of all known HIV carriers, Michaeli said the blood bank needed only to ensure these infected Israelis didn't donate.

Emanuel Friedman, a Burlingame doctor who ran a health clinic in Addis Ababa while Ethiopian Jews were waiting to leave, asked the panel why the blood wasn't simply held for six months and retested. By that time, a detectable HIV antibody shows up in 95 percent of all cases.

But his question and others — such as exactly when the policy of discarding the blood began — were not answered because no government officials sat on the panel.

Ephraim Sneh, Israel's health minister, was scheduled to address the conference. But he changed his plans after the blood dumping came to light and after Israel moved its elections up from November to May 29.

Michaeli, however, tried to put Israel's situation in perspective.

The AIDS epidemic in Israel is much less severe than in other nations, particularly those in Africa or Asia, he said.

As of Jan. 1, 1996, Israel has recorded 358 AIDS cases since the first person was diagnosed in 1982. Of them, 278 people have died and 16 have left the country. Another 1,386 Israelis are HIV-positive, he said.

The average rate of HIV-infection for all Israelis is 0.02 percent, he said, vs. 1.75 percent among Ethiopian Jews.

The infection rate among Ethiopian Jews is about equal to the average rate for all San Franciscans or New Yorkers, Michaeli noted. And it is much lower than the infection rate found in some other African populations. In Uganda's capital of Kampala, for example, the infection rate has reached 33 percent.

Michaeli also hinted that other nations may have been better off if they had erred on the side of caution in dealing with AIDS. France, for example, didn't discard its untested blood products, which then infected 2,000 to 3,000 hemophiliacs with the AIDS virus.

"People did not always react rationally regarding problems with AIDS," said Michaeli, whose talk was sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal's National Maimonides Society. "That also happened in Israel."