Global Blood Supply

December 2, 2019

We’ve all seen the signs for blood donations and blood drives hosted by local hospitals or organizations like the Red Cross. We know the importance of giving blood. We know that it can save lives. But how many of us really know the ins and outs of blood supply around the world?

Whole Blood Donations per 1000 People in 2013. Source: World Health Organization

The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains a target of collecting around ten to twenty donations per every one thousand people in a population. However, a recent study by researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health found that the target amount was too low after researching the gap between supply and demand in 190 countries around the world. Of those, 119 did not meet their demand, and most of them fall under the category of predominantly low-income and middle-income economies. By contrast, countries in North America and Western Europe either met the demand for blood or exceeded it, and the United States, in particular, had twice the amount of blood it needed. Overall, the study concluded that the target of the WHO must be raised to around 30-40 donations per 1000 people if the global demand is to be met.

The question then arises: if the US has so much in excess, why do we still face shortages here in times of crisis?

Although the United States has more blood as a collective entity, certain blood types are rarer than others and can still run out or be unavailable for patients in critical situations, often following natural disasters or mass violence. It is still imperative for citizens of our own country to continually donate blood to ensure that the needs of all patients are met. But there also needs to be an added focus on helping our global brothers and sisters meet their needs as well.

Here the second question evolves: since we have more, why can’t we send some of it to our neighbors abroad?

The truth is that we have been sending blood cross-country, but it’s happening as a huge for-profit international trade. The United States is the world’s third largest exporter of blood, and the industry is thriving while many countries are facing this critical shortage. From an economic standpoint, it is clear that the US has a lot to gain from this continued business, and it is abundantly clear, given how difficult it is to get blood, that it is an expensive commodity. On the other hand, a humanitarian standpoint advocates for a rethinking of our global priorities and a realignment towards allocating some of the supply as donations for other countries.

So then: what else can we do?

Experts studying this issue urge that there should be a greater emphasis on conducting more blood drives in areas where the deficit is high. When reserves are smaller, there results a lowered capacity for more complex surgeries and transfusion procedures, and calls must be made to family members of patients for immediate blood. This last-minute process creates an inherent risk in the safety of the blood, for testing is rushed and prone to error.

Blood Donors in Rwanda. Source: World Health Organization

Paying people for their blood also poses a health risk, a moral issue, and often a legal question as well. The WHO found that the probability of people omitting information about their personal health history was much greater when pay was involved, mainly because people were willing to sacrifice truth for the compensation. Donations, by nature of being an altruistic decision, eliminate that risk. Many countries legally prohibit any form of monetary compensation for blood donations for this same reason, in addition to a moral view that blood, as a source of life, should not be tied to finance. 

Overall, countries with a surplus of blood should consider how their positions can benefit countries on the other end of the spectrum facing deficits. An increase in education about the importance of blood donation and an increased effort in creating more blood drives across lower-income countries is also necessary. And on a personal level, each of us can do our part by choosing to donate blood more often, keeping the current state of the world in mind.

Header Photo: Rwandan children play soccer near Kigali. Rwanda has among the lowest numbers of blood donors per capita worldwide, yet demand remains strong. Source: MIT Technology Review

Janavi Kanagasundaram

Janavi Kanagasundaram is a staff writer for the Colonial Scope and a junior social sciences editor for the GW Undergraduate Review. She is a freshman studying International Affairs and concentrating in International Economics at the Elliott School of International Affairs. Her past research projects in high school have included studying the influence of beauty product advertisements on the perception of different skin shades and investigating the two-way relationship between language acquisition and personality development. She currently works as an administrative assistant in GW’s Anthropology Department and is also a member of the University Honors Program, South Asian Society, and Humanity First.

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