It saddens and angers me that we are having a serious debate about abandoning the principle of unpaid donations, and risking the safety of the blood supply, so that a private company can profit from this public resource.
By David Harvey
Published April 16, 2013
A private company is seeking to open paid blood donor clinics in Canada. They have two sites in downtown Toronto, and one in Hamilton. They want to pay people $20 to donate plasma, which can be done once a week. They are awaiting licensing decisions from Health Canada and Ontario's Ministry of Health.
To this point, Canada has relied on volunteers to donate blood. Donors who are motivated by altruism, not money: those who give to help, not to profit. And we rely on their honesty in truthfully answering screening questions before being qualified to donate.
In this system, both the donors and the collectors of blood share a single motivation - the collection of blood free from infection, that will be safe, and often life saving, for the recipient. No one has any incentive to be less than fully truthful, as there is nothing to be gained or lost.
But a paid donor system fundamentally changes that equation. Admitting you had the flu recently could disqualify you, costing you your $20. "I'm feeling fine now, nothing to worry about, I don't need to tell them".
For 20 years, I was involved in examining what went wrong in the 1980's in Canada's blood system. I watched an entire generation of hemophiliacs get sick and die. I went to too many funerals, for friends who were taken far too young.
One of the fundamental causes of such a tragedy was scientific and bureaucratic arrogance - a belief that we knew all the risks and had conquered them. Even as the death toll rose from AIDS, those running the system repeated the erroneous risk figure of "one in a million".
By the time the actual risk was accepted and action taken, it was too late for far too many people.
So it is with disbelief and frustration that I see the same justifications being offered for accepting a system of paid donations, the same assertions being made that current testing and processing eliminates the risk of blood borne pathogens.
HIV was transmitted to blood recipients before anyone knew it existed. Hepatitis C was transmitted before it was appreciated how serious a disease it was. We have significantly reduced, but not eliminated, the risk of transmission of these diseases.
It would be foolish to assume that no new pathogen will appear. Lowering our guard, and accepting practices that are known to increase risk, could have deadly consequences.
After an exhaustive, multi-million dollar, multi-year public inquiry into the blood system in Canada, Justice Horace Krever made dozens of recommendations to preserve and enhance the safety of the blood system in Canada.
The inquiry report set out several fundamental principles which should govern our blood supply, including:
Blood is a public resource.
Donors of blood and plasma should not be paid for their donations, except in rare circumstances.
Safety of the blood supply system is paramount.
It saddens and angers me that we are now having a serious debate about abandoning the principle of unpaid donations, and risking the safety of the blood supply, so that a private company can profit from this public resource.
My friends James Kreppner and John Plater devoted the last years of their lives, often while suffering from debilitating illness, to advocating for a safer blood system for everyone. They're no longer here to do that, but I am, and I will. For them.
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