OTTAWA - Canadian Blood Services says it will begin excluding potential blood donors if they spent a total of six months or more in Saudi Arabia between 1980 and 1996.

It decided on the new policy after a probable case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease turned up in a Canadian resident who lived in Saudi Arabia between 1980 and 1996.

A question about time spent in Saudi Arabia will be added to the blood donor questionnaire.

Officials say it's believed the probable case of vCJD - the human form of mad cow disease - was acquired some years ago, most likely from imported British beef during that time period.

Canadian Blood Services says the individual was not a blood donor or blood recipient.

In addition to the current case in Canada, two other suspected cases of variant CJD outside of Canada have been linked to patients who are current or former residents of Saudi Arabia.

“While it is not known with certainty that these cases are related to consumption of imported U.K. beef, it is clear that vCJD is a fatal disease that can be transmitted via a blood transfusion,” Canadian Blood Services
said in a statement issued this week.

“While the risk of vCJD through blood transfusions is very low, Canadian Blood Services is taking these precautionary steps to ensure the safest blood supply to patients.”

It said the change is expected to take place in mid-June.

Currently, people aren't permitted to donate blood or plasma if they spent a cumulative total of three months or more in the United Kingdom or France between 1980 and 1996.

In addition, someone would be excluded from donating after spending a cumulative total of five years or more in western Europe outside the U.K. or France since 1980.