Throwing Out Good Blood
Why the Red Cross cries 'crisis' and tosses out so much
Each month, Louellen McNabb drops by the American Red Cross in Columbus, Ohio, to give a pint of blood. But unlike the donor in the recliner next to her, McNabb, 57, knows her healthy blood will never be used. "What a shame," the nurse says as they watch the blood flow into a bag. After McNabb leaves, her blood gets thrown away. The dumping of blood is particularly ironic because every summer, and again during the holiday season, the Red Cross warns that the nation's blood supply has dropped to dangerously low levels. Donations have declined about 10 percent over the past five years, and supplies in several regions of the country were depleted last January when bad weather forced cancellations of blood drives. Many nonemergency surgeries were postponed. Meanwhile, the demand for blood components is rising, as baby boomers age and require more plasma for surgery and platelets for cancer therapy.
Yet, it turns out, there need not be blood shortages. Every year, the American Red Cross and independent blood centers throw out millions of pints of healthy blood. About 1.3 million Americans have a disorder called hemochromatosis, an ailment in which the body improperly metabolizes iron. There is an effective treatment, though: old-fashioned bloodletting. Each year, more than 100,000 Americans get regular "therapeutic phlebotomies." But the Red Cross, which collects 45 percent of all blood donations, won't accept blood from patients with hemochromatosis, for reasons that include caution, public-relations sensitivity and possibly financial self-interest. America's Blood Centers, a group of nonprofit, independent blood banks which collect another 45 percent of volunteer donations, also do not keep the blood, though their membership is divided on the policy.
The waste of blood has enraged many hematologists. "It's an ethical and medical travesty," says Dr. Stephen Strum, a hematologist in Culver City, Calif. "They're ignoring a huge pool of healthy donors that could wipe out the shortages overnight," adds Dr. James Kushner, chief of hematology at the University of Utah.
Young blood. Hemochromatosis, also called iron overload disease, is the most common hereditary disease in America, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In those who have the condition, excess iron accumulates in the organs and literally rusts. Early warning signs are chronic fatigue, joint pain, and impotence. Severe sufferers can even set off metal detectors, and their skin bronzes. But if the disease is treated early, a person can live a normal life span.
Although people with hemochromatosis have a serious disease, the Red Cross and ABC agree that the blood they purge is as safe as a regular donor's. In fact, the CDC and many hematologists believe it's better for patients who need regular transfusions than normal blood. The red blood cells are younger, so fewer transfusions are needed. "We think blood from people with hemochromatosis may be even safer than blood from a regular donor," says Dr. Sharon McDonnell of the CDC.
No official statistics are kept on how much blood is given by people with hemochromatosis. But based on interviews with hematologists and public-health officials, U.S. News estimates that roughly 3 million pints of blood are thrown out each year. And most people who have hemochromatosis have not even been diagnosed. If they were, and received regular phlebotomies, as many as 42 million additional pints of blood could be available annually, according to the CDC. (The entire amount of blood donated last year was 14 million pints.) The CDC is considering universal screening for hemochromatosis.