Nation Facing Severe Blood Shortage

From the WebMD Archives

Sept 19, 2000 (Washington) -- Modern medicine is exacting a unique toll on the nation's blood supply, according to the American Red Cross.

The Arlington, Va.-based organization, which is responsible for collecting about half of the nation's blood supply, said Tuesday that it is suffering from a severe blood shortage due to the increased demand for improved medical procedures and complex new surgeries. As a result, its member hospitals in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Atlanta will have to postpone scheduled surgeries until it can revive its inventory, the organization said.

In August, American Red Cross member hospitals requested an average of 16,800 units of blood per day, a 14% increase over the year-earlier figures. As of Friday, Sept. 15, the American Red Cross had approximately 36,000 units of blood in its national inventory. The critical minimum blood inventory is a two-day supply, and the optimal level is a three-day supply.

The American Red Cross has been operating at below optimal inventory levels for the entire summer, says American Red Cross spokeswoman Sarah Evers. Since April, the organization has not been able to maintain more than a two-day supply, she says.


The shortage is being credited to the increased demand for complex treatments such as organ transplants, heart surgeries, and chemotherapy. "Not many people realize that aggressive chemotherapy requires blood to replace damaged blood cells," Evers tells WebMD. "But these procedures are taking their toll on inventory."

Still, demand is only part of the problem, Evers says. While the organization's collections have edged up about 3% over the past 12 months, only an estimated 5% of all eligible Americans donate blood. "If more people donated blood, we would likely be able to meet the demand," she tells WebMD.

Although not at the same crisis point as the American Red Cross, America's Blood Centers, the organization responsible for collecting the other half of the nation's blood supply, says it, too, is suffering from a similar trend. Collections are up, but the demand for more blood by urban trauma centers is creating regional shortages, says Susan Parkinson, spokeswoman for America's Blood Centers.


These spot shortages, which tend to occur more often in the Northeast, are also happening more frequently and lasting longer, Parkinson says. "It's an alarming trend," she tells WebMD.


To counter this trend, steps are being taken. For instance, the American Red Cross is looking for ways to target donors who have donated in the past and donors with more common blood types such as type O, which are in greater demand, Evers tells WebMD. The organization is also pilot-testing an Internet-based appointment system and looking to develop urban collection centers to make giving blood more convenient, she says.

But the bottom line is that more Americans must now donate blood, the two organizations say. "It really comes down to new donations," Evers says.

To donate blood, one must be healthy, at least 17 years old and weigh 110 pounds or more. Appointments can be scheduled by calling 1-800-GIVE-LIFE to reach the American Red Cross and 1-888-BLOOD88 to contact America's Blood Centers.

Donating blood takes about an hour, but it could save a life, Parkinson says.


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