Southern California Red Cross officials on Thursday issued their fourth blood-shortage warning in less than two years--but this time, they said, it's serious.
In what doctors are calling the worst shortage in the region since 1981, a blood scarcity that has persisted since the December flu season has become so critical that supplies of type O are down to a four-hour cushion. Other blood types are at two- or three-day supply levels at most hospitals, where elective surgeries are being regularly postponed because of the lack of blood.
"We've been limping along and surviving day by day," said Dr. Ross Herron, medical director for American Red Cross blood services in Southern California, which supplies much of the blood used by hospitals in Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. "We need all eligible Southern Californians to step up and donate now."
Thanks to what doctors called "blind luck," no deaths or serious health problems have resulted since the shortage began. Hospitals are increasingly relying on their own blood supplies contributed by patients or their family members.
Doctors said donations have steadily increased over the years, but demand is also growing. Surgical procedures are becoming more sophisticated, and an aging population is stretching supplies nationwide.
The donor pool also has been reduced by the summer holiday season and tightening donor eligibility rules. A federal advisory committee Thursday recommended tighter restrictions on blood donors in an effort to protect the nation's blood supply from Europe's mad cow disease.
The recommendations to the Food and Drug Administration came despite warnings from health officials that tougher restrictions would cause blood shortages.
If approved by the FDA, the recommendations could reduce available blood donors by 8% in Southern California, Herron estimated. Whether the tougher standards create blood shortages "will depend on whether people respond to our appeals for more donors and more frequent donations, and that's hard to predict."
The worst possible scenario is a major disaster that causes many injuries, such as an earthquake or major accident, said Dr. Janice Nelson, blood bank director at County-USC Medical Center.
"Sometimes we're not going to be that lucky. This is real," Nelson said.
But the Red Cross is also concerned that people are tired of hearing blood appeals and are less likely to respond than in the past.
"I understand that if you put out the appeal enough, people don't start to listen to it any more. But again, I don't want to see it happen that we have to come to a point where some child dies because we don't have blood," Nelson said. In a departure from past practice, the Red Cross is buying time on television to run donor recruitment advertisements in Los Angeles and nationally. Until recently, the agency had relied only on free public service ads, which do not always air at the most advantageous times.
The most severe local shortage is in type O blood, critical to the burgeoning Latino community in Southern California because more than 60% of Latinos are type O.
Hospitals are becoming frustrated, officials said. At Northridge Hospital Medical Center, blood bank officials said they have been grappling with critically low levels of the blood type for more than a year. The hospital operates on about half of the O-positive blood supply it prefers to have, said blood bank supervisor Susan Pollack.
At UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, supplies of O-negative are at "critical levels," said spokeswoman Susan Rayburn.
O-negative is particularly crucial for trauma centers such as UC Irvine's, Rayburn said, because it's used in emergencies when there's no time to check a patient's blood type.
To be eligible to give blood at the Red Cross in Southern California, donors must be at least 17 and weigh 110 pounds. Appointments may be made by calling (800) GIVE LIFE, or (800) 879-4484 in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Times staff writers Karima Haynes, Mike Anton and Aaron Zitner and Associated Press contributed to this story.