Vantage Point: Banning blood drives hurts communities

Stanford Blood Center has generated headlines here and across the country in the last few weeks because of a controversial topic: men who have had sex with men, and the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not allow them to give blood. San Jose State University is no longer allowing our center to hold blood drives on campus because they find the policy discriminatory.

What's really frustrating about this is that we're caught in the middle. We absolutely have to adhere to the FDA's policies or we're shut down. When words like 'discriminatory' are used to describe blood drives, it raises a red flag with many, many people. They don't want to have anything to do with discrimination. So those elusive few donors - those who are willing to take time out of their regular schedule, answer questions about their private life, and give a pint of blood - are becoming increasingly difficult to find.

Even when we find those generous donors, we have to turn away dozens of them each day for all kinds of reasons. You traveled to a part of the world where there is malaria? You can't give blood for a year. Spent three months in the United Kingdom back in '92? You can't give blood for the rest of your life because you may have been exposed to an infectious disease that was in that region then. Is your hemoglobin count low today? Maybe we can try again tomorrow. Gotten a tattoo recently? You're unable to donate for a year. Been diagnosed with leukemia or lymphoma? Thank you for being so generous but we can't accept your blood.

After all of the questions about medications, illnesses, behaviors, and travel history are asked and answered, only 39 percent of the American population is eligible to donate blood. It's even harder to find eligible and willing blood donors. Adding that one criterion - willingness - reduces the percentage of blood donors to a shocking 5 percent. That's right. A mere 5 percent of the population supports the entire country's blood supply. And that's the national average. Here in the Bay Area, the number of eligible and willing blood donors is more like 3 percent.

There is nothing we dislike more than telling people they can't donate. One look at the empty shelves of our lab's refrigerators plus one report from the hospital describing scheduled transplant surgeries sends us scrambling to find other centers that have a surplus of blood that day and who will send it our way.

The aspect that hangs in the balance is the patient. Is there going to be another devastating earthquake in our area? Is a San Jose State student going to be involved in a horrible car crash? Is a Santa Clara County resident going to find out they have cancer and need daily blood transfusions to stay alive? Is a scheduled transplant patient at Stanford Hospital going to hemorrhage and need 70 units of blood?

Will we be prepared if one of these things happens? What if all of these things happen at the same time tomorrow? These are the questions that keep us up at night. When San Jose State President Don Kassing chose to ban blood drives on campus, he used blood centers as a pawn in a game with the FDA. And now Santa Clara County Supervisor Pete McHugh said in a board meeting that he wants to follow their lead. We can't let this mindset permeate other organizations. It threatens the blood supply, which makes us - and you - the victims of this kind of tactic.

Our responsibility as a blood center is to ensure a safe and adequate blood supply for our community. Period. There is no discriminatory agenda.

Making our job more difficult is not an effective or socially responsible way to communicate with the FDA. The FDA doesn't respond to banned blood drives, statements from presidents, or media coverage. It responds to numbers. Until there is hard data demonstrating that the safety of our nation's blood supply will not be compromised by drawing blood from men who have had sex with a man since 1977, the FDA will not change the policy.

So in the meantime, we'll work harder. We'll pick up as much slack as possible. We'll hope that when we call these other areas to ask if they have any blood to send us that the answer will be 'yes.' We'll continue increasing our recruiting efforts and relying on our loyal donors. We'll do everything we can to ensure that no one dies because there wasn't enough blood available.

The reality is, there is zero discrimination against blood recipients. Everyone - including the recently tattooed, the world travelers, the folks with low hemoglobin, men who have had sex with a man, even people who ban blood drives - everyone has the right to a safe and adequate blood supply. Why anyone would compromise that, intentionally or indirectly, is unconscionable to us.

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