Blood banks threw away thousands of units after Sept. 11

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

WASHINGTON -- More than 200,000 units of blood had to be thrown away in the weeks after Sept. 11, five times the amount that typically expires before it can be used, congressional auditors report.

Their assessment of blood wasted is far higher than previous estimates and significantly greater than what blood bankers report.

Shaken by the terror attacks, people across the country lined up to give blood, doing one of the few things they could think of to help. Nearly 600,000 pints above normal collections were donated in September and October, the General Accounting Office estimates in testimony being delivered to a House subcommittee Tuesday.

With few survivors, however, little extra blood was needed. All totaled, fewer than 260 units were used to treat victims of the attacks. Donated red cells last only 42 days before it goes bad.

"Far more blood was collected immediately after Sept. 11 than was needed by survivors or that ultimately could be absorbed by the nation's blood banks," Janet Heinrich, director of health care issues for the GAO, said in testimony prepared for Tuesday's hearing before the House Commerce investigations subcommittee.

Conflicting messages

In the immediate aftermath, competing blood banks sent sharply conflicting messages.

By Sept. 12, independent blood banks, which collect about half the nation's blood, were telling people that no more was needed and asking them to come back later. The American Red Cross, which collects the other half, continued to urge donations, promising to freeze anything that couldn't be used right away. In the end, only 9,000 units were frozen.

Members of the subcommittee plan to press the Red Cross on that point Tuesday, said spokesman Ken Johnson.

"Clearly suppliers knew they had more blood than they needed on the day after 9-11, and yet the Red Cross continued to make impassioned appeals for help. Why? We still don't have a good answer," Johnson said.

The Red Cross responded that it was preparing for the worst.

"We weren't confident there wasn't another man-made disaster headed our way," said Trudy Sullivan, Red Cross vice president for communications and strategy. "We wanted to be as prepared as possible."

Technology unavailable

Sullivan said the freezing plans did not materialize because the technology needed for thawed blood to last more than 24 hours was not yet available. The Red Cross had hoped it would be ready in time, she said. She estimated it remains 9 to 12 months away.

The issue of blood wastage has been discussed since the week of Sept. 11, but the GAO report provides the first independent estimate of its magnitude.

Of the extra blood collected, the GAO estimates that about 208,000 pints of red cells were thrown away because they expired before being distributed to hospitals. That does not include an unknown number of additional units discarded by hospitals, it said.

The GAO based its estimates on information from the National Blood Data Resource Center, which tracks the blood supply at a representative group of blood banks, Heinrich said in an interview Monday. Using this method, the GAO could not determine how much of the wasted blood was collected by the Red Cross and how much by independent centers.

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