Health & Medicine

Blood banks face ‘unprecedented’ shortage due in part to Zika restrictions

A network of blood donation centers in Northern and Central California has issued an urgent plea for donors to help alleviate what it says is an “extreme” and “unprecedented” nationwide blood supply shortage aggravated by the ongoing Zika epidemic in Latin America.

BloodSource, which collects blood from Merced to Chico and distributes it to about 100 California hospitals, put out the “critical appeal” Tuesday morning, as the network’s reserves dropped to 5,000 pints below inventory levels needed to meet hospital demand, according to a news release. The biggest supplier of blood in the region, BloodSource aims to satisfy July demand of 25,400 pints. At the current rate, the network staff projects it will collect only 20,700 pints.

Just this March, BloodSource had enough surplus blood to supplement other blood banks that were sending supplies to Puerto Rico, where local blood collection has been suspended over fears of Zika virus spreading through blood transfusion. Visitors to the U.S. territory as well as to Zika-hit countries, such as Brazil, Mexico and Cuba, are barred from donating blood within about a month of returning to the U.S.

BloodSource centers have enough stores to provide for their service areas for about two days if donations were to stop entirely, said Dr. Chris Gresens, the network’s senior medical director and vice president of global medicine. Normally, that reserve would stretch to five or six days, he said.

The network has seen roughly 16,000 donors each month in 2016, with a low of 15,000 in May and a high of nearly 18,000 in June. During the first three days of July, only 950 people visited BloodSource’s centers.

“We usually are the knights in shining armor – we usually share with other parts of the country,” Gresens said. “Unless we can significantly bolster our donations this month, we’re going to come up short, and that’s untenable.”

The American Red Cross issued its own emergency call for blood this week, blaming the Fourth of July holiday for the shortage.

Only 0.11 percent of American Red Cross donors were turned down between March 14 and May 31 of this year because of travel to Zika-affected countries, said spokeswoman Natividad Lewis. That doesn’t include people who voluntarily stay away from blood donation centers upon their return to the U.S., Lewis said.

In its service area, BloodSource has turned away prospective donors 235 times because of Zika travels since the restrictions took effect.

“It’s difficult to track the exact impact of the Zika virus on donations, because many individuals may decide to postpone their donation,” Lewis said. “During the summer, we typically will say that we need people to do their best at maintaining their donation schedules. It’s a time when people are traveling, and you never know what scenario you’ll need blood for.”

Gresens said the current shortage reflects a “perfect storm” of reduced supply coupled with increased demand. The contributing factors include:

  • Summer travel. Blood centers typically see fewer donors in the summer as people fill their free time with vacations.
  • Zika restrictions. As of February, BloodSource has been asking visitors to Zika-affected countries such as Mexico and Puerto Rico to hold off on donating for 28 days after returning to the U.S., per recommendations of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Gresens estimated that 2 to 3 percent of patients are turned away from donating for that reason.
  • Fewer blood drives. Colleges and high schools, which host many blood drives during the school year, shut down for the summer.
  • More demand. Local physicians are seeing more people coming in for blood-intensive procedures such as vascular and orthopedic surgeries under the Affordable Care Act, Gresens said. Additionally, as emergency medical care improves, people who would typically die from serious wounds are increasingly surviving with the help of multiple blood transfusions

If the supply were to get too low at BloodSource, Gresens said, the organization would have to reach out to other blood banks for assistance. At a truly desperate level, BloodSource would ask local hospitals not to perform any blood-intensive procedures not deemed absolutely necessary. BloodSource supplies blood for all hospital systems in the Sacramento area, including Sutter Health, Kaiser Permanente, Dignity Health and the UC Davis Health System, said spokeswoman Vicki Wolfe.

It’s common for blood centers across the U.S. to help one another in times of short supply, such as after the Aurora shooting in Colorado or Hurricane Katrina, she said.

Officials at Kaiser Permanente said they now have a safe and adequate supply of blood for patients.

“By and large, summer is always a difficult time for our blood suppliers to bolster inventory since people typically take summer vacations,” said spokesman Edwin Garcia in an email. “It’s an excellent time for those who feel well and are in good health to visit their local community blood center and donate blood.”

To increase the supply, BloodSource is loosening certain donor eligibility requirements, including eliminating a 12-month deferral period for people who get tattoos. In the coming months, BloodSource also expects to lift the lifelong donation ban for men who have sex with men, instead instating a 12-month deferral period for that group.

Overall, BloodSource is reaching out to politicians, church leaders and public health officials to help encourage anyone deemed medically eligible to schedule a donation as soon as possible.

Paul Frydendal, a Sacramento resident and 93-time blood donor, said he relied on blood supplies to survive after he suffered massive head and torso injuries after an 800-foot slide down a Sierra slope in 2004.

He said he had been a semi-regular donor before the accident but saw the importance of giving blood after his brush with death.

“It doesn’t hurt, and it’s only a minor inconvenience,” Frydendal said after making a donation at BloodSource on Tuesday. “It can really help somebody. You don’t know who it could help.”

Donors can make an appointment with BloodSource by calling 866-822-5663.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

Related stories from Sacramento Bee