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Amid shortage, Red Cross urges blood donations. Why is it so bad this year?

The FDA must first approve updates to donor history questionnaires and donor education materials before blood centers can start taking donations from gay and bisexual men.
Canadian Blood Services | Flickr

Blood supplies are low again this year, and the American Red Cross is extending an urgent call for donations that began two weeks ago.

Shortages are common in the summer. Many potential donors are on vacation, and blood drives at high schools have to be put on hold. But this year, blood suppliers are feeling the crunch several weeks earlier than expected.

“We like to make sure that we have plenty in reserve. We’re under that 5-day supply; that means that we go to an emergency appeal,” said Joe Zydlo, a spokesperson for the Red Cross of Missouri-Illinois.

The Food and Drug Administration has determined that there is a strong possibility that the Zika virus could be spread through drug transfusions, in additional to mosquito bites and sexual contact. The agency has recommended that potential donors and their partners who are coming back from Zika-affected countries must wait for four weeks to donate. In addition, the organization raised the requirement for minimum hemoglobin levels for male donors.

The Zika requirements have resulted in a two percent decrease in donations for the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center, said Kirby Winn, a spokesperson for the center. Mississippi Valley provides blood supplies for 88 hospitals in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.

On Monday, the organization fell behind on their goal of 600 units of blood by about 100 donations.  

“We really can’t afford to see that happen day after day, because first you’re 100 behind, then 200 and 300," Winn said. "You really can’t get caught up."

At St. Anthony’s Medical Center, laboratory director Renee Rockwell said this summer’s shortage hasn’t affected operations, and likely won’t.

“As it gets on appeal we’re watching our blood supply closer. At the worst case scenario, elective procedures have to be canceled but we’re very far from that here,” Rockwell said.

At any given time, Rockwell keeps about 150 units of blood on hand in varying blood types. Human blood cannot be used after 42 days, so managing the supply can be tricky.

“At any given time you can have a really bad case that can use a lot of blood products." Rockwell said. "One person can use a fair amount of blood products, so you’re always looking at that.”

In recent years, many hospitals have actually seen their need for transfusions decline and flatten out, due to advances in medicine and a push for minimally invasive surgeries. Managing the shift in demand has led to consolidations for some blood centers, as well as other challenges.

“We exist to provide hospitals with what they need,” Winn said. “That kind of a trend has not put an end to the pinch that we see this time of year.”

To find a blood drive, visit the American Red Cross or the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB

Note: An earlier version of this story identified St. Anthony's Medical Center as St. Anthony's Hospital.