In Need of Blood; Stringent Screening Has Cut the Number of Eligible Donors

Article excerpt

Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Blood-drive advertisements typically carry an alarmist tone, with good reason. Make a donation, save a life. Supplies are short.

The latter may be more true than people realize.

A new study by the University of Minnesota says the number of potential blood donors in the United States is far smaller than previously thought.

The updated figures show just 37 percent of the population, or 111 million people, are eligible to donate blood. Existing research had said about 177 million were able to donate.

The study looked at newer exclusions, such as high-risk behavior, established by the American Association of Blood Banks.

Stephanie Millian, director of biomedical communication with the national headquarters of the American Red Cross, says efforts to ensure donor and recipient safety contributed to driving down the pool of eligible donors.

"The industry is adding on more criteria every day," Ms. Millian says.

The list of reasons people may not be able to donate blood is lengthy, including disqualification because of older age or having had blood transfusions.

"All those things add up," she says.

Dr. Jeffrey McCullough, a professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Minnesota, says he wasn't shocked by his study's findings.

"Over the last 25 years, since the onset of the AIDS epidemic, blood centers have put in place a lot more lab tests and questions about donors' medical history or behaviors that might put them at risk," Dr. McCullough says.

Once you add up those factors, "there's an awful lot more people not eligible to be donors than we thought," he says.

That said, the changes made to the blood donation system have "made a huge difference. Blood is much safer these days than at the onset of the AIDS epidemic," he says.

One way to increase the blood supply is to use filtration systems to turn potentially tainted blood into healthy blood. But any failure in the testing system - "No test is perfect," he says - could lead to tainted blood.

Synthetic blood remains a dream for scientists hoping to increase the blood supply.

"There's still nothing approved by the FDA," Dr. McCullough says, despite all the work done by private companies seeking to find a suitable blood substitute.

"It turns out there really aren't any chemicals that will work very well," he says.

Some blood substitutes circulate in the blood for a few days, not the 60 days of normal blood cells, and others become toxic in the body after a short period.

Dr. Gerald Sandler, director of the transfusion medicine program at Georgetown University Hospital, says the University of Minnesota report struck him as solid and alarming.

"It's written by knowledgeable scientists, and it provides the scientific basis for what's been obvious to us," says Dr. Sandler, former vice president of the national blood program for the American Red Cross.

Existing technology does help the overall blood supply situation. Pathogen inactivation techniques, available now, involve heating liquid blood products involving clear solutions. The method has its limits.

"If you have red blood cells and small clotting cells called platelets, they can't be heated or treated with chemicals," Dr. Sandler says.

Dr. Kirsten Alcorn, medical director of transfusion services at the Washington Hospital Center in Northwest, says schools need to be more proactive in getting the message out to the next generation of blood donors. …