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Super blood donors could be tapped in a disaster

Next time a national disaster strikes, whether it’s an earthquake or a pandemic, dedicated blood donors could be tapped — quite literally — to give again within as little as two days, under a plan being considered by federal health officials.

The Food and Drug Administration is asking advice from blood experts this week about whether it’s a good idea to dramatically shrink the intervals between blood donations in the event of emergencies.

Under proposals being considered by the Blood Products Advisory Committee, donors would be allowed to reduce the interval from the normal eight weeks down to four weeks without a doctor’s approval, and down to as little as 48 hours with a medical release.

“If things got really bad, we would like the ability ... to draw more fully qualified donors more quickly,” explained Dr. Louis Katz, executive vice president of medical affairs for the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center, who supports the idea.

The move essentially would create a potential fleet of super blood donors, regular donors available on short to notice to boost the blood supply by less than 10 percent, but enough to get over a donation hump.

“We’d like already-committed donors that we could look to in a bad pinch,” Katz said.

The reduced interval would be limited to once a year per donor and would be safe in normally healthy people, Katz said.

The change would allow more flexibility in a system in which blood donation and use can wax and wane dramatically. All told, about 15.7 million units of whole blood and red blood cells were donated in 2007, the most recent statistics available, exceeding those used by about 1.2 million units. In some years, the margin is much slimmer, blood experts say.

Interestingly, the super donors might not be called upon in the most obvious disasters, which always attract hordes of well-meaning people willing to give blood. After the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, for instance, or the Hurricane Katrina aftermath in New Orleans, the response taxed the blood donation community’s capability to use and store it all.

“Every blood center in the country had people lined up around the block,” Katz said.

Instead, the most dire blood emergency might come in the form of a pandemic illness that lasts for months and affects a wide swath of the country, or a nuclear accident or attack that knocks out key blood centers in several major cities at once, he added.

The FDA will consider the advice of the committee before making the change, but there is no estimate about when a decision will come, said Shelly Burgess, an FDA spokeswoman. Still, some center managers might be tempted to tap donors even before it takes effect.

“We were going to do this anyway if we had to,” Katz said, who expects it to be approved. “What are we supposed to do, let people bleed to death?”