WASHINGTON — The nation's hospitals do not have sufficient blood reserves to respond to a major national disaster, representatives of the country's largest blood suppliers warned Tuesday. As federal security officials issued high-level warnings about potential terrorist attacks today, the American Red Cross and independent blood banks urged members of the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations to support a federally funded campaign aimed at restoring the national supply.
"Today, there is less than a three-day supply nationwide. Never in modern history have our reserves been lower," said Jeanne Dariotis, president of America's Blood Centers, a network of 75 blood facilities that collects about half of the nation's blood supply. "In these days of heightened concerns for attacks, our blood supply is inadequate to deal with a major disaster."
The blood shortage is expected to worsen because of public concerns over what officials called the "theoretical" possibility that the West Nile virus can be contracted through blood transfusions. Additionally, officials worry that new regulations prohibiting blood donations from anyone who has lived in Europe for more than five years will further discourage would-be donors.
Top officials from other blood suppliers in the nation, including the president of the New York Blood Center, agreed that the number of donors will continue to dwindle unless the government takes action. However, their conclusion that blood is now in short supply contradicts the findings of a General Accounting Office report presented at Tuesday's hearing.
Congressional auditors found that the national blood supply has "generally remained adequate" since Sept. 11, when millions of Americans rushed to blood centers and stood in long lines to give blood.
But because no national system is in place to track the nation's blood supply and federal agencies cannot determine adequate amounts except for recommendations in times of crisis, conflicting opinions often arise on exactly when a national blood shortage hits.
GAO Director Janet Heinrich pointed to the weeks immediately after Sept. 11 to highlight the rift that exists between the nation's blood community and the government on a safe national blood supply.
Nearly 600,000 additional blood units were collected in the weeks after the attacks, according to the GAO report, but fewer than 260 units were used to treat the victims. As a result, slightly more than 200,000 units of collected blood expired and had to be thrown away, about five times the amount usually discarded. The amount of blood wasted did not include how much blood hospitals had to throw away once they received the shipments from suppliers.
Donated red blood cells last 42 days and platelets are good for only five days.
"Because very few of the units donated immediately after Sept. 11 were needed by survivors, this experience has raised concerns among blood suppliers and within the government about how best to manage and prepare the blood supply for emergencies," Heinrich said.
The Department of Health and Human Services and blood suppliers agreed to work more closely to avoid collecting more blood than needed in the event of another national disaster.
In December, an HHS task force that includes the Red Cross and other independent blood banks formed to develop standards on a national blood supply tracking system and how to keep enough blood in supply year round.