Blood donation centers struggle with shrinking suppliesby Toni Randolph, Minnesota Public Radio
Fewer than 40 percent of Americans are eligible to donate blood. Many factors keep potential donors out of the pool. And that's creating new challenges for blood donation centers.
St. Paul, Minn. — Steve Jordan gave blood today at the Red Cross facility in St. Paul. He's considered a regular blood donor, because he gives more than twice a year. But periodically he's been temporarily kicked out of the blood donation pool because of some places he's traveled.
"It's amazing, you get disappointed. You get kicked out for vacationing," Jordan said.
More than a year ago, Jordan and his wife vacationed in the Dominican Republic.
"The Dominican Republic is a favorite place for us to go, but the area where we went is now on the malaria list. So we've traveled to different places because of that," explained Jordan.
The Centers for Disease Control keeps a list of places where malaria has been found. And, as a precaution, people like Jordan, who've traveled to those places, are deferred from giving blood for a year.
Travel, medication, disease and high-risk behavior are among the factors that blood donation centers consider when screening potential blood donors. And because of those factors, the nationwide pool of those eligible to give blood is about 111 million people, according to a recent study by the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health.
And while that may seem like a large number, it's only about 37 percent of the population. It had been thought that 60 percent of the population was eligible to give blood.
The lower figure wasn't really news to Dr. Jed Gorlin, the Medical Director at Memorial Blood Center and the Hennepin County Medical Center's Transfusion Services.
He said blood donation centers have always known that the actual pool of donors was smaller, because of all the testing that's done to protect the blood supply.
"The good part about this strategy is that we achieve very safe blood. The challenge is, is it makes it harder and harder to get enough donors, because with each new deferral, with each new test, we lose more good donors as well," Gorlin said.
So blood donation centers are trying to recruit more donors. Starting in July, they'll get some help because, under a new state law, 16-year-olds in Minnesota will be allowed to donate blood. Previously only 17-year-olds could give.
"What it allows us to do is help establish blood donation as a routine thing. The more we can get people to donate early and donate often the more they can incorporate it into their daily routine," Gorlin said.
When the routine is interrupted, though, the blood supply can drop. A big interruption for students is summer break, which can hamper blood donations for the Red Cross. The agency says high school and college students make up 20 percent of its blood donations. So this summer, the Red Cross is joining forces with an alternative music festival. In exchange for giving blood, they'll offer donors a back stage pass to The Vans Warped Tour.
Red Cross spokesman Nick Gehrig said the average donor gives fewer than two times a year.
"If we can move the needle just a little bit. If you give once per year, to consider giving twice. Or if you give twice, consider giving three times, we're confident, especially during the summer months that our blood supply will be stable for patients," Gehrig said.
The agency will try to bring its lapsed donors back into the fold.
Right now blood donations centers say only about five to 10 percent of those who are eligible to give blood do.
So now researchers at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health is starting a new study -- this time they're trying to figure out how to encourage more people to make a blood donation.
- All Things Considered, 04/22/2008, 5:52 p.m.