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Blood banks consider paying donors

©Los Angeles Times

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 31, 2001

It's a question that for years has been regarded as unthinkable. But now, a sustained national blood shortage is forcing some hospitals and blood banks to ask: Should we pay our blood donors?

A minority of blood bankers and doctors see "donor incentive programs" as the most practical response to dwindling blood supplies. Even some longtime supporters of the American Red Cross, which is adamantly opposed to paying donors, are raising the possibility.

"In order to provide an adequate blood supply, this modest incentive might make it worth people's while to come in and donate," said Dr. Janice Nelson, a board member for a regional branch of the Red Cross and director of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center Blood Bank.

"Now that we're seeing the shortages and increased demands, I think it's one thing that we've got to look at -- the money."

Officials at the Tampa Bay area's two blood suppliers, Florida Blood Services and LifeSouth Community Blood Centers, said that they understand why blood banks would consider purchasing blood but that there are important reasons not to.

"We are not considering it," said Karen Rhodenizer, LifeSouth's director of public affairs. "Your reasons for walking through the door to give blood are different. The medical community doesn't want blood that hasn't been donated."

Rhodenizer said paying donors may encourage them to lie about their medical history and, she said, even today's tests cannot prevent all diseases from seeping into the supply.

Proponents of for-pay programs counter that today's blood testing is so advanced -- screening for everything from hepatitis to HIV -- that the blood supply would not be compromised.

These proponents say donors now get "incentives" one way or another, be it paid time off work to participate in a blood drive, tickets to cultural events or smaller gifts, such as "A Pint for a Pint" ice cream coupons.

"The definition of "paid' is very imprecise and frankly unscientific," said Dr. Ron Strauss, medical director of the DeGowin Blood Center at the University of Iowa. "How one cash is okay and how one cash is not okay doesn't make any sense to me."

The Food and Drug Administration defines "paid" as anything readily transferable to cash. The agency requires that paid donations be labeled as such.

Some experts fear that viruses and infectious diseases yet undetected could creep into the blood supply just as HIV did in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, they say, keeping an all-volunteer donor pool provides an extra layer of safety.

"Clearly, the experience with the AIDS epidemic has created an environment in which ... blood bankers tend to bend way over backward to do almost anything they can think of to improve the safety (of the blood supply)," said Dr. Jeffrey C. McCullough, editor of Transfusion magazine.

It is almost unheard of in the United States for blood banks to pay donors for red blood cells, but several agencies say they have safe and successful paid-donor programs for platelets, the cells that cause blood clotting.

Part of the argument for compensating platelet donors is that the donation process is much more arduous and time-consuming than for red blood cells, and that the platelet shortage is even more severe.

-- Times staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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