Hemochromatosis is a disorder in which extra iron builds up in the body. A potential treatment is phlebotomy so patients with hemochromatosis want to donate blood and donate regularly. The American Red Cross, however, does not permit people with hemochromatosis to donate blood. Why not? The blood is safe and effective. The blood of these patients doesn’t have much, if any, extra iron (the iron builds up in the body not so much in the blood per se). The “problem” is that people with hemochromatosis benefit themselves by giving blood and for this reason their blood is considered tainted by the American Red Cross.
The American Red Cross, which controls about 45% of the nation’s blood supply, does not currently accept donations from people with known hemochromatosis. Everyone agrees that the blood is safe and of high quality. There is no risk of passing on a genetic disease through blood transfusions. But the Red Cross has a long-standing policy that potential donors are not allowed to receive direct compensation for their donation (beyond the usual orange juice and cookie). Because people with hemochromatosis would otherwise have to pay for their therapeutic phlebotomies, they would in effect be getting something of value for being able to donate for free. Thus the Red Cross has ruled that such donations violate their policy.
The FDA does allow patients with hemochromatosis to donate blood so long as there is no charge for phlebotomy (i.e. so long as patients don’t have an incentive to lie to obtain free phlebotomy via donation.) Some countries and some blood banks within the US do accept donations from people with hemochromatosis as do some Kaiser locations. But the American Red Cross is the biggest collector of blood and so it is very often the case that when people with hemochromatosis get a phlebotomy their blood is simply thrown away.
Once a week, Dan Gray pays to have a pint of blood taken at Franklin Memorial Hospital. And once a week, that blood is thrown out rather than donated to someone in need.
It frustrates him.
“You could take a pint out of me, a pint out of you and a pint out of somebody else and play three-pint monte with it and they wouldn’t know whose is whose,” Gray said. “As far as the analysis of it, no one would know.”
The Cape Fear Valley Blood Donor Center put out a desperate call this past week for blood donations.
…Every time Carol Barbera hears of such pleas, she gets upset. She was once an avid blood donor and would be one still.
She also has plenty of blood to give.
A medical condition requires her to have a pint of blood drawn at least every two months. The blood is perfectly usable as donor blood. Instead, it goes straight into medical waste.
The Red Cross’s antipathy towards donations from people with hemochromatosis appears to stem from a confused ethical view that incentivized donations are either “coerced” or “non-altruistic” and an old bias against paid donations coming from Titmuss. Actual studies of paid donation, however, show that incentives increased donations without reducing quality.
Thus, as far as the evidence is concerned, there are no good reasons to prohibit people with hemochromatosis from donating blood and given the repeated shortages of blood in the United States there are many good reasons for allowing them to donate.
Hat tip: The tireless Peter Jaworski.