Cali Owings, Published July 16 2013
Protecting donors: United Blood Services of Fargo relies on extra screening
A frequent blood donor since 2005, VerDouw stopped giving for a few months while he built up his iron levels. He started taking an iron supplement and returned to donating as soon as he got approval from his doctor.
Repeat blood donors like VerDouw, who is from Bismarck and donates at his workplace in Mandan, risk developing an iron deficiency, according to national research.
Blood banks have to turn away donors whose iron levels are too low, which means they’re saying “no” to some of their most dependable donors. Repeat donors – whether three times per year or lifetime – contribute 70 percent of the U.S. blood supply.
Blood collection and transfusion agencies are trying to determine guidelines that protect donors without limiting the blood supply.
Researchers are examining blood donors’ iron levels in a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study under way since 2011. The results of study will help improve blood banking and transfusion practices nationwide.
In Fargo, United Blood Services relies on extra screening to decide whether a donor is at risk of developing an iron deficiency.
United Blood Services initially screens all potential donors to make sure their hemoglobin levels are high enough to donate, said Tami Kilzer, donor recruitment manager. A donor’s hemoglobin level is indicative of iron levels in the blood and a required test for donor eligibility.
If a donor’s hemoglobin level falls toward the low end of their eligibility criteria, the donor is tested again for the amount of iron stored. Donors with lower iron reserves are deferred for six months before being eligible to donate again.
The second stored-iron test is a new policy as of November 2012. Only 7 percent of volunteers are deferred due to low iron, Kilzer said.
The six-month waiting period at United Blood Services gives donors time to restore their iron levels so they’ll be safe when they give. It also ensures a healthier blood supply.
“We want that unit of blood to be the best unit to give to a patient in need,” Kilzer said. “Part of that is a good strong iron level. We don’t want to push it to the point where they are just barely able to donate.”
Earlier national research indicates that frequent whole-blood donors are at risk of becoming iron depleted.
Researchers found that 27 percent of frequent female donors had low iron reserves and 62 percent produced iron-deficient red blood cells, according to the study published in 2012. The rates were lower among frequent male donors at 18 and 47 percent, respectively.
The study recommended increasing the time between donations and deferring donors based on hemoglobin levels.
Federal guidelines allow donors to give whole blood every two months, but some blood banks enforce their own waiting times. United Blood Services follows the standard 56-day waiting period for whole blood.
Kyle Slivnik has never been turned away from a blood donation. The 26-year-old has been giving blood for about nine years, since starting at a high school blood drive.
He’s never had a bad experience and said he’s not concerned that donating blood will adversely affect his health in the long term.
“It’s a minor risk. It doesn’t faze me at all,” Slivnik said. “The cause is greater than the concern.”
Slivnik lives in Grand Forks and drives to Fargo do donate blood. He said he plans to donate as long as he is able.
Even a bump in the road won’t deter VerDouw from donating blood regularly. He made it clear to his doctor that he would like to continue donating if possible. They’ll reassess his iron levels at his annual physical.
“I’ve always known there was some kind of risk involved,” VerDouw said. “It’s something that I’m willing to look past … because I know there’s always a need for blood in the area and nationally.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599