Red Cross freezes much of surplus blood given after terrorist attacks

Group seeks to prevent waste

most will serve local hospital needs

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 20, 2001|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Americans who lined up by the thousands to donate blood after last week's terrorist attacks have created a surplus, spurring the American Red Cross for the first time to freeze large amounts to prevent waste.

Because freezing blood is complicated and expensive, the nation's largest blood agency has been freezing only small quantities of rare types for the past 10 years.

Plans were under way to expand the program in the next six months, but the recent surge in blood donations - 250,000 units within a week of the disasters, or twice the average number - has prompted officials to act sooner. Red blood cells, the components used in most transfusions, have a shelf life of only 42 days.

"The decision to freeze blood has been made," said Blythe Kubina, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Washington. She said the agency will soon decide how much blood will be frozen and which laboratories will take on the role.

Very little donated blood was used to treat victims from the World Trade Center and Pentagon because the immediate death toll was so large. The donations are being used largely to serve local needs, such as the treatment of trauma victims and surgery patients.

"You're donating to ensure your community's supply," said Kubina. "It also goes into the national blood inventory" - a system by which communities with short supplies tap regions that have more than enough.

The large reserve could also serve needs arising from a military action, she said.

Dr. Paul Ness, director of transfusion medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said it's possible that some blood donated in the past week will not be used. "That is a concern," he said. "Another concern is that eight weeks from now ... a lot of people may choose not to give because they thought they did their annual giving."

Some blood was discarded after a similar surge of donations during the Persian Gulf war, Ness said. He said it's prudent of the Red Cross to plan on freezing blood to avert waste but that it's not simple.

A chemical must be added to the blood to protect it from degrading while frozen. Once thawed, the blood must be placed through a mechanical process that removes the chemical. The blood must also be used within a day of thawing, he said. "It's just not as easy as having blood available in liquid form. But it can be done."

Dr. Ronald Gilcher, medical director of an independent blood agency in Oklahoma City, opposes the idea of freezing blood even though he agrees that some kept in refrigerators could go to waste. "It's not practical nor is it cost effective to try to freeze blood for routine inventory," said Gilcher, who serves on a federal blood advisory panel.

Building a large reserve of frozen blood could give people a false sense of security that regular donations are not needed, Gilcher said. He said blood banks should try harder to schedule donors at regular intervals so a steady inventory can be kept.

The Chesapeake and Potomac Region of the Red Cross collected 12,156 units in the week after the attacks, about double the average weekly amount.

Most of the blood is being kept in cold storage at the agency's headquarters on Mount Hope Drive and is being parceled out to hospitals as the need arises.

"This has certainly bolstered the inventories we have now. However, we are being asked to continue collecting blood to be prepared," said Amy Thompson, a spokeswoman.

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