Blood banks urge summer donations, warn of imminent shortages

Friday, June 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The summer slump in blood donations started earlier than usual this year and could lead to dire shortages within weeks, say blood banks that issued an urgent appeal for people to give.

Summer shortages are common as frequent donors go on vacation and school blood drives dry up. But blood banks told the government Thursday that post-Sept. 11 donor apathy and new precautions against mad cow disease are worsening this year's slump.

Almost half of the American Red Cross' blood donor regions and one-third of the nation's independent blood banks have tight supplies _ a day's worth or less on hand. The South seems particularly hard hit, said America's Blood Centers, a group that represents independent banks.

The Red Cross provides about half the nation's blood supply and ABC banks provide the other half. Underscoring the urgent need, the two competing groups issued a joint appeal for donors this week.

``A frightening trend is beginning to develop,'' said Dr. Robert Jones of the New York Blood Center, which has seen 13 percent fewer donors this June than a year ago. ``Collections have been dropping off dramatically as of June 1.''

``It's tanked'' since May, agreed the Red Cross' Dr. Peter Page. ``Our problem now is people not coming to donate.''

Some 60 percent of Americans are eligible to donate blood _ an individual can give once every two months _ but only 5 percent do.

Indeed, a recent survey for The Associated Press found the main reason Americans say they donate is to help after a disaster, even though only blood previously donated and disease-tested actually helps disaster victims.

In fact, 34,000 pints are needed every day. Another poll, announced by blood bankers this week, found only 9 percent of people know blood is needed every two seconds.

``The American public has no clue that blood is perishable,'' Jones said. He urged the government to fund a massive education campaign explaining that critical red blood cells last only 42 days and thus continuous donations are vital.

Jones said lack of understanding contributes to the post-Sept. 11 backlash that's worsening the summer slump. After the terrorist attacks, hundreds of thousands of people donated blood, overwhelming blood banks. Ultimately, tens of thousands of pints went bad before they could be used _ and donations subsequently plummeted.

Donor focus groups say they're still angry about wasted blood and are unlikely to respond to new appeals for donations, Jones said.

Blood can be frozen, but the process is extremely difficult and expensive.

Chronically tight supplies lead to periodic shortages that force hospitals to postpone or cancel elective surgeries. So far this year, the American Hospital Association knows of no surgery disruptions. But government monitoring shows ``near misses'' are starting to climb, said Dr. Stephen Nightingale of the Department of Health and Human Services. Those are cases where a blood center can't immediately or completely fill a hospital's order for more pints.

One other factor this summer: new precautions against mad cow disease, just in case the fatal brain disease spread through tainted European beef also might spread through blood.

Tighter Food and Drug Administration rules instituted May 31 required blood banks to turn away more donors who have spent time in Britain or Europe. The Red Cross imposed even stricter mad cow rules in October.

No one knows exactly how many Americans can no longer donate, blood banks told an FDA meeting Thursday _ but they're turning away roughly 1 percent of donors at the door. Page said that means rejecting about 3,764 Red Cross donors a month.

That doesn't count people who heard about the new rules and quit trying to donate. A survey of 10,000 donors indicates 3 percent of donors assume they're not eligible anymore, but that number is far larger in cities with lots of retired soldiers, said ABC's Dr. Celso Bianco.

Indeed, 18 percent of active-duty military personnel are disqualified under the mad cow rules, said Maj. Ronny Alford of the Armed Services Blood Program. Anticipating that loss, the military stepped up donor recruitment and actually increased donations by 9 percent over the winter, the only bright spot mentioned Thursday.