Recession, plasma donors hit blood donations

November 14, 2009
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The number of blood donations is lagging, thanks to the H1N1 flu virus, the recession, the approaching winter and competition from plasma centers that pay donors, two local nonprofits said last week.

Bill Rietcha, president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based Michigan Blood, said pints of blood are down by about 3.5 percent in the past year, compared to the same amount of growth in a typical year. He blamed much of the decrease on the plasma centers that supply the pharmaceutical industry.

“It’s been a combination of two things: Their demand worldwide is growing, and then, secondly, the economy is driving people to seek some alternative income,” Rietcha said. “Those two things combined have affected us.”

At the American Red Cross Great Lakes Blood Services Region, which covers 65 outstate Michigan counties and serves about 70 hospitals, donations have lagged only recently, Communications Director Monica Stoneking said. She attributed that mostly to the swine flu.

“If they are making pharmaceuticals off of that, you know that they are making money,” she said. “We heavily rely on a volunteer donor base.”

BioLife Plasma Services has locations in Grand Rapids and Walker. It has 65 plasma collection centers in 22 states, according to its Web site. There are four in Michigan. BioLife is a unit of Baxter International, a publicly traded pharmaceutical company with $12 billion in sales and headquarters in Deerfield, Ill. The bioscience division uses plasma to manufacture recombinant and plasma-based proteins for the treatment of hemophilia, immune deficiency, biosurgery and vaccines. Last month, the division reported $1.4 billion in total revenue, a 2 percent increase over the third quarter of 2008. Sales grew by 8 percent.

Plasma is the liquid part of blood, consisting mostly of water and proteins. Unlike blood donations, which must be separated by 56 days, people may donate plasma up to twice a week. However, the process is longer than donating blood, as long as two hours. Donors are paid $60 per donation in the form of a pre-loaded Visa card. Donors must be between 18 and 62 years old.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Marketing Research Bureau, a Connecticut firm that focuses on the blood and plasma industry, estimated the U.S. market for drugs based on plasma at $4 billion for 2008.

Plasma donations have grown from 10 million in 2005 to 18.8 million in 2008, according to trade group the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association. The Food and Drug Administration licenses about 335 donation centers, according to its Web site.

In an e-mail, BioLife spokeswoman Laura Jacobs said, “To ensure an adequate blood and plasma supply to meet patients’ needs, it is important that all healthy, eligible people donate regularly.”

Federal regulations prohibit payments for blood donations to Michigan Blood and to the American Red Cross, the nonprofits said. The two organizations supply whole blood and blood products to dozens of Michigan hospitals outside of the Detroit area. They both maintain permanent blood donation facilities across the Lower Peninsula and run mobile blood drives.

“We want them to understand the choice, and they certainly have that right to make that choice, but it should be a fully informed choice,” Rietcha said. Michigan Blood serves about two dozen hospitals.

“The blood we collect is used to save lives in the hospitals in Michigan, and the plasma that’s collected in plasma centers is manufactured into pharmaceutical products that are used all over the world: both noble endeavors. But we can’t do it without people donating blood to us.

“It’s the difference between assuring the life-saving blood supply for our communities and enabling the big pharma companies to make some profit. So it’s a pretty big difference, in my mind.”

Stoneking and Riecha both said that the recession has hurt workplace blood drives.

“When we depend on business to hold closed drives — the factories, GM plants — if they shut down, we can’t hold those blood drives,” Stoneking said. “That could impact us hugely.”

“A lot of our blood collections relies on doing drives in businesses, churches and schools,” Riecha added. “The economy has certainly impacted that significantly. There are fewer people employed, and businesses are less willing to let us come in and spend time with their employees.”

He said the recession effect is compounded by the plasma competition, as those who have lost jobs or are otherwise impacted by the recession look to make a few extra bucks on plasma rather than donate blood for free.

“It does become a little bit problematic that we all rely on the same resource, which is people,” Riecha said. “The blood supply is literally a critical, life-saving resource for our communities. If we start dipping into that at the expense of the communities, I think we’ve got a problem.”

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