Colds and flu reduce nation’s blood supply

A relentless cold and flu season, two weeks of holiday-reduced blood donation, and curtailment of blood drives due to fear of Y2K problems have plunged the nation’s blood supplies to critically low levels, according to Washington, DC-based America’s Blood Centers (ABC), whose nonprofit community blood centers collect almost half (47%) of the U.S. blood supply.

"People who are sick with a cold or the flu cannot donate blood until they have been healthy for a week," says ABC president Celso Bianco, MD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta recently announced that 19 states were experiencing high flu incidence, including Arizona, California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

"We already are seeing blood centers ask hospitals to postpone nonemergency room surgeries. The blood supply is extremely fragile, and we are providing blood on an as-needed basis in many states. This is critical," Bianco says.

Replenishing the supply

ABC serves the majority of hospitals in the flu-affected states, including ABC’s largest blood center, United Blood Services, based in Phoenix, which alone collects about 8% of the U.S. blood supply. United Blood Services serves hospitals in 18 states, and has launched critical appeals for blood in 14 of those states. About one-third of the rest of ABC’s 72 members also have critically low inventories of all blood types, especially O-negative, which can be given to any patient. California and Florida have been hit hard by shortages, as have parts of the South and Northeast.

Many blood center officials have cited Y2K as another reason for low donations. Corporate blood drives are blood centers’ largest source of blood donations. "Blood drives were cancelled or delayed before the new year because corporations were preparing for any Y2K problems that may have erupted. We are in the process of rescheduling these drives, but the blood supply is fragile. It needs constant monitoring and replenishment," Bianco says. "We urge anyone who is healthy, 17 years or older, and weighs at least 110 pounds to call their local blood center. It takes only one hour to donate blood, and each blood donation could save three lives."

One blood donation (about a pint) can be separated into three components (red blood cells, platelets, and plasma). Red blood cells carry oxygen through the blood and are given mostly to trauma, heart surgery, and transplant patients. Red blood cells can be used up to 42 days from the day of donation. Platelets are given primarily to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, which destroys the body’s blood cells. They must be used within five days. Plasma also helps blood to clot and can be used within a year if frozen.

How to donate

Prospective donors can call (888) 256-6388 (BLOOD-88) for the blood center location nearest them. The phone system reads the caller’s area code and provides a list of the nearest blood donation centers. Donors must bring photo identification and Social Security information with them to their donation appointments.

Pre-Blood Donation Tips

• Get a good night’s sleep.

• Eat breakfast.

• Drink plenty of fluids several hours before donating blood.

• Relax.

Post-Blood Donation Tips

• Drink juice or something with sugar to raise blood sugar levels.

• Eat a hearty meal.

• Do not drink any alcoholic beverages for five hours.

• Do not smoke for one hour.

For further information, contact Melissa McMillan, America’s Blood Centers, (202) 393-5725, ext. 21.