Who’s tapping the vein of the Red Cross? 

A new bloodsucker threatens the Red Cross

By now you may have heard the radio ads heralding the new plasma “donation” facility in town. The accompanying jingle perfectly executes its mission in that it’s just cloying enough to stick in your head like the chorus from a bad pop song. What you might not know is that the presence of Community Bio-Resources may also spell trouble for the Red Cross and its efforts to keep blood and blood platelet banks stocked for local patients. The Missoula outlet of Community Bio-Resources is the 101st of its kind in the nation and the first in Montana. Powered by the Baxter Corporation (a dominant player in vaccine production), CBR taps the arms of all qualified comers and ships the frozen, extracted plasma out of state, where it’s converted into life-saving vaccines, I.V. fluids, clotting factor for hemophiliacs, and albumen for burn patients.

Plasma “donation” differs from blood donation in several key ways. Once the needle is hooked up to a donor’s arm, a high-tech machine draws whole blood from the body and immediately begins separating the plasma—the liquid portion of blood—from the red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. All non-plasmic items are then returned to the body via the same needle, along with a measure of saline solution to replenish blood volume (plasma extractions average 600-800 cc’s, depending on body weight). Because of this relatively low-maintenance extraction procedure, plasma “donors” can sidle up to the needle as often as two times a week, compared to an eight-week turnaround for those who donate whole blood.

But here’s the clincher: plasma “donors” are compensated to the tune of $20 per visit (which, of course, makes them sellers as opposed to donors), whereas the only reward for blood donors is a sore arm, a sugar cookie and the gratitude of a patient. And that’s precisely what causes a bit of concern for Janice Briggs, interim executive director of the Lewis & Clark region of the Red Cross.

“We sure hope they will not cause problems for our stores of whole blood and platelets,” says Briggs. “We do know that some communities have experienced a drop in blood and platelet donors with the arrival of CBR.” Briggs says that what is especially worrisome is the potential hit to platelet donations, which are extracted in a method similar to plasma and are crucial for treating cancer patients. Because platelets expire within a few days of being extracted, local donors are essential for maintaining a fresh supply.

“We can only hope that our donor recruitment department can meet the challenge,” says Briggs.

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