- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time, the government is starting a day-to-day tracking system to monitor the nation's blood supply and sound an alarm when shortages loom.

It comes none too soon: A tight blood supply, once a problem only around holidays, has become a year-round crisis for many parts of the country.

It may worsen next month when many longtime donors are turned away as a precaution against mad cow disease — and as hospitals grapple with sharp increases in the price of blood.

"We may find ourselves back in the pre-1970s days where if we're doing an operation, we have to check the blood bank first and make sure something's in the refrigerators," adds Dr. Christopher Lowell, Massachusetts General Hospital's transfusion director.

In the past year, repeated shortages have forced hospitals from New York to California to postpone elective surgeries and issue emergency calls for donations.

Last month, supplies in part of Illinois reached their lowest point in eight years. Los Angeles blood banks are debating if donors should be paid. And the government is considering a ban on blood imported from Europe, a move that could cut New York City's blood supply by a third.

In 1999, the latest figures available, Americans donated 13.6 million usable units of blood, and 12.4 million units were transfused, says the National Blood Data Resource Center. Because donated blood lasts only a few weeks and demand has risen steadily for a decade, that's too small a margin for comfort.

No one knows just how tight today's supply is because there has been no real-time monitoring — until now.

The Department of Health and Human Services is signing up 29 hospitals around the country to report every day how much blood they have in stock. Their information will be posted on a public Internet site sometime this fall, providing a snapshot of how much blood is available day-to-day in different regions.

If supplies dip in Atlanta and Miami, then blood banks could check whether it's a temporary problem — maybe there were a lot of car crashes over a weekend — or a real shortage in the Southeast requiring blood drives or new shipments. The tracking begins at a crucial time, as hospitals are particularly fearful of more shortages next month.

That's when the American Red Cross is set to turn away thousands of donors who spent a cumulative time of three months in Britain since 1980, or six months anywhere in Europe. It's a precaution against the theoretical risk that the human version of mad cow disease might be transmitted by donors exposed to infected beef overseas. Experts predict it could cut blood donors by 9 percent. So the Red Cross is writing tens of thousands of donors, urging the less-traveled to give blood more often.

Hospitals also are struggling to pay more for blood as the Red Cross raised prices by 10 percent to 35 percent.

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