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Your Blood Is Needed, Badly

Urgent summer appeal for donations

FRIDAY, June 28, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- A coalition of major health organizations is issuing an urgent appeal for blood donations. Don't yawn.

You may be inclined to shrug it off because such an appeal is made just about every summer. However, before you hop in the car and set off on vacation, think of what might happen if you had an accident and needed blood that wasn't available.

"We always struggle during the summer, but never have we struggled so early for a problem that is spread out across the entire nation," says Trudy Sullivan, vice president for communications and strategy at the American Red Cross. "All these organizations have united for the first time to let people know how critical it is that they get involved in donating."

"At this time, there are significant blood shortages in several parts of the country, several of which have less than a one-day supply," says Jennifer Garfinkel, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Blood Banks. "There are shortages in the entire East Coast, parts of the south-central United States, Texas and in the Pacific region, including parts of California and Oregon."

The Red Cross and the blood bank association are joined in the appeal by the American Public Health Association, the American Hospital Association and America's Blood Banks.

The organizations cite a number of reasons for a donor shortage, including a sense of disillusion about the results of the emotional outpouring that followed the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

"We're hearing anecdotally from our regional staff around the country that people feel they don't have to give because of all the units of blood that were collected around 9/11," Sullivan says.

A total of 475,000 units of blood was donated in the month following the attack, more than was needed. The Red Cross eventually had to discard almost 50,000 units that were not needed before they became outdated.

The problem now is there is not enough donated blood, Sullivan says. The situation has returned to normal, which means less than 2 percent of donated blood is discarded. That is a bare minimum, Sullivan says, resulting from the need to keep blood as close to the eventual user as possible, which means in hospital blood banks.

The shelf life is 42 days for red cells and five days for platelets, and inevitably, supply and demand are not perfectly synchronized in some hospitals.

The basic problem is that few Americans are dedicated donors, and this is the time of year when many of them go on vacation, Garfinkel says. Fewer than 5 percent of Americans who are eligible to donate blood do so regularly, she adds.

That's a fact that apparently eludes most Americans.

According to a poll sponsored by the health agencies, only 9 percent of Americans know that a unit of blood is needed every two seconds -- that means 43,200 units every day. The poll also found that the majority of Americans think the minimum age for donating is 18, which is off by one critical year.

Requirements for blood donation are rather minimal, Sullivan says. You have to be 17, weigh at least 110 pounds and not have a medical condition that interferes with donation. That makes about two-thirds of Americans eligible to give blood every 56 days.

If you are inspired to donate, don't call your local hospital. You'll be referred to one of the national organizations who have numbers that will give you information on where to go.

For the American Red Cross, the number is 1-800 448-3543; for the American Association of Blood Banks it is 1-866 376-6968; for America's Blood Centers, it is 1-888 872-5663.

Giving blood will occupy less than a morning of your time. "When you get to the blood center, you will go through a health screening process, filling out a lot of forms and having your blood pressure and iron level checked," Sullivan says. "That will take longer than the time with a needle in your arm, which is five or six minutes. Then you will go into the canteen with a volunteer to replace the fluids you have lost. Then you can go back on the road, usually less than an hour after you arrived."

What To Do

For more on the blood supply, try the American Red Cross or the American Association of Blood Banks.

SOURCES: Trudy Sullivan, vice president, communications and strategy, American Red Cross, Richmond, Va.; Jennifer Garfinkel, spokeswoman, American Association of Blood Banks, Bethesda, Md.
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