The economic crunch is pushing more Americans to sell their blood.

Croakey’s Washington correspondent, Dr Lesley Russell, warns that there are some important lessons for Australia, especially given the threats to our self-sufficiency in this area. She writes:

“Some years ago, during negotiations over the Australia – US Free Trade Agreement, there was a push from US companies to open up the Australian blood plasma market to US businesses.

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The issue has never entirely gone away.  But practices in the US highlight why there are plenty of reasons why Australians to fight to ensure that the blood plasma products they use are made in Australia from the blood and plasma that is freely donated by fellow Australians.

The US, which currently supplies more than half the world’s plasma needs, is one of the few countries to allow plasma donors to be paid.  Basically, this is a rapidly growing, US$12 billion industry that depends on the blood of people who are hard-up for cash.  A single plasma donation, for which the donor might be paid $30, results in pharmaceutical products worth at least $300.

Ironically, the US does not allow the importation of plasma, as part of a policy to keep these products safe, but does allow the (temporary) importation of plasma donors.  Each week, sometimes twice a week, thousands of Mexicans come to 16 plasma collection centres in border cities in Texas and Arizona to earn up to $60.  That’s the equivalent of a week’s wages in Mexico.

Away from the border, many plasma collection centres have historically been located in areas of extreme poverty. Commercial source plasma clinics are also over-represented in neighborhoods with very active local drug economies.  This industry dependence on people who are down-and-out is of concern to many.

It is not so much that there’s the likelihood of infectious diseases being transmitted (in fact there are no recorded instances of this happening) as it is about taking advantage of economically disadvantaged individuals who are often compromising their own health by donating too frequently.

As the economic crisis and job cuts continue in the US, more and more people are resorting to this means of supplementing their incomes.  Internet sites advise that selling plasma is a way to get cash and tell how to do this (see here and there’s an interesting blog here from someone who regularly sold his plasma).

The ethics of this are not something Australia can ignore, as despite our policy of self-sufficiency, the demand for plasma products, essential to help keep many patients alive, is such that some imports are necessary.

Overcoming this ethical dilemma will require more government funds to expand the work of the Red Cross and even greater altruism on the part of Australians who already support blood and plasma donation.”

Dr Lesley Russell is the Menzies Foundation Fellow at the Menzies  Center for Health Policy, University of Sydney/ Australian National  University and a Research Associate at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney.  She is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC.