Sporadic blood shortages could last longer and become more widespread unless donations increase to match rising demand.
Representatives of several leading blood banks testified last week before the House Commerce Committee's oversight and investigation subcommittee about the tightening blood supply, which could threaten surgery schedules by next year.
The focus on blood suppliers was the latest in a series of hearings on the safety and adequacy of the nation's blood supply.
A recent report by the National Blood Data Resource Center said that if current trends continue, the demand for blood could outpace the supply in 2000, leading to widespread delays in elective surgery. A General Accounting Office study released last month, however, concluded that "the blood supply is not in crisis."
Blood industry representatives maintain that blood shortages are becoming more common and more troublesome.
"It is clear that, even in good times, the nation's blood supply is fragile," said Jacquelyn Fredrick, chief operating officer of the American Red Cross' biomedical services unit. Blood donations to the Red Cross rose 8% last year to 500,000 units, a good sign, but distribution of blood to hospitals outpaced that, increasing by 11%.
Anticipating tougher times ahead, the Red Cross and other suppliers asked the federal government to support research on donor motivation, better monitoring of the blood supply and streamlined science-based rules for donor screening.
Susan Wilkinson, president of the American Association of Blood Banks, pointed to three factors creating blood shortages. An aging population uses more blood-people 65 and older consume twice as much blood per capita as younger people. Medical advances, including organ transplants and cancer therapies, create new blood demand. And measures to safeguard the blood supply, such as the exclusion of some donors, have hurt collections.
Donor deferral is a particularly sore point.
"We agree with criteria that ensure a safer blood supply," said Celso Bianco, M.D., president of America's Blood Centers, Washington. "However, we are deferring more and more perfectly healthy Americans because of speculation."