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World travelers face rejection from blood banks

If you travel outside the U.S. regularly, you may want to do some research before you make a special trip to go donate blood.

More than a few times I’ve saved friends or family members from a fruitless drive to the Red Cross blood bank. A few people I’ve gotten e-mails from haven’t been so lucky; they burned some expensive gas getting there only to be rejected. They were sent away because they had the dreaded disease known as the “travel bug.”

Were they slashing through the Amazon jungle with a machete, or taking a riverboat down the Congo? No, one had been scuba diving in Belize, one had been on a small cruise ship that docked in the San Blas islands of Panama and another had taken a weekend trip to Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas.

To protect the blood supply, even if it means vast shortages, the American Red Cross applies very strict rules. In short, you must wait 12 months after travel in an area where malaria is found, no matter how negligible the risk. You must wait three years after moving to the United States after living in a country where malaria is found (even if you didn’t see any mosquitoes surviving the smog outside your crummy apartment). If there was a whiff of mad cow disease when you visited some place, you are not eligible to donate. If you lived in certain countries in Western Africa, or had a sweetie from there, hang it up completely.

In other words, if you’re an international traveler or expatriate who regularly ventures outside of the U.S., there’s probably a better chance you’ll be rejected than accepted.

The ‘do not give’ list
If you are an even slightly adventurous traveler, you will probably run into trouble when you start filling out paperwork to donate. Do you like to see the great wonders of the world? If you’ve been to see the amazing structures of Ankor Wat (Cambodia), the Taj Mahal (India) or the Buddhist splendors of Bhutan, forget it.

Have you seen the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, Laos? Visited the colorful markets of Bolivia? Gone birdwatching in Costa Rica or Honduras? Stay in the cubicle on your company’s blood drive day.

Have you taken a nice little scuba diving trip to Belize or the Bay Islands of Honduras? Walk right past that bloodmobile. If you’ve gone on a safari in South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya or Botswana, take a year off.

Touring around China after the Olympics? You’ll need an atlas to determine whether you can give blood as this is the CDC explanation: “In provinces with risk, transmission exists in rural communities below 1,500m only during warm weather: north of latitude 33°N, July-November; between latitude 25°N and 33°N, May-December. South of latitude 25°N, transmission occurs year-round.”

If you’ve been in the military, you might as well request a Red Cross “do not call” listing. Unless you’ve been able to avoid a tour of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Korean DMZ, you will be deferred for at least a year.

If you are planning to buy a vacation or retirement home in Central America, you may want to bank some blood ahead of time. Such popular retirement areas as Guanacaste (Costa Rica), Bocas del Toro (Panama) and Boquete (Panama) are considered danger zones for malaria.

Your haunted blood
If you lived abroad, even ages ago, you may be sent home packing. Thanks to the possible risk of mad cow disease, anyone who has lived in Europe for a total of over five years since 1980 is out. If you lived in the UK for three months or more between 1980 and 1996, including London, your blood is automatically rejected. (A whole generation of exchange students crossed off the list.)

Are you in the oil and gas industry? Stay home in the easy chair if you’ve traveled around Azerbaijan, Angola, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. If you crossed into the eastern part of Turkey, 21 provinces are listed as malaria risks.

Because of HIV risk, an FDA mandate puts on even more onerous restrictions. “Persons who were born in or lived in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Niger and Nigeria since 1977 cannot be blood donors.” If you’ve ever slept with someone from one of those countries, you’re guilty by association. Yes that’s right: if you had the bad fortune to be assigned to one of these countries at some point in the past three decades, or ever had a girlfriend/boyfriend from that vast region, you are banned for life!

Risk area updates
The CDC updates their “yellow book” twice a year, so the most idiotic examples tend to drop off in time. (I once was rejected because I had visited Playa del Carmen in Mexico, but Cozumel — a 10-minute ferry ride away — was considered a safe zone.) The three main tourist areas of Guatemala are now listed as exceptions. The suburbs of Seoul, Korea are now off the list — my living there once made me deferred for three years.

Of course we have to keep the blood supply pure. Nobody wants to recover from one accident only to be sickened with something else from a transfusion. But various estimates for the chance of picking up an infection or disease from a blood transfusion range from 1 in 30,000 to 1 in 80,000. The risk of death is far slimmer, in line with the risk of dying from anesthesia or an antibiotic. The risk of getting AIDS from a blood transfusion is about the same as the risk of getting struck by lightning.

Unless we run out of blood, the guidelines are likely to stay restrictive. If you have traveled abroad and have managed to avoid the problem areas, contact your local Red Cross chapter and do your part to help. But if you’re not so sure you’ll qualify, study the information on their Web site.

Tim Leffel is author of the books and “ He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine .