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Winter Storms Threaten Blood Supply

If one of your New Year's resolutions is to volunteer, the Red Cross wants you! Right now blood banks are having trouble keeping up with demand, so blood donors can really make a difference.

Rebecca Haley, MD, is the chief medical officer of the American Red Cross, the primary supplier of blood and blood products (such as plasma) in the United States. She talked with the CBS Early Show about the importance of donating, how to get involved and qualifications for donors.

The blizzard in the Midwest and Northeast, ice storms in the South, and cold weather has resulted in a blood shortage. Many of the usual blood drives had to be cancelled because of poor weather conditions.

The Red Cross first began blood drives on the battlefield during World War II. Now the blood supply is used for emergencies such as car accidents and surgeries and for sickle cell anemia, chemotherapy (when necessary) and transplants. The number of uses for blood keeps increasing, and although the actual number of donations has risen, it has not kept pace with the growing number of uses.

Seventy-six percent of American adults expect that blood will be available to them when they need it, but most Americans underestimate the demand for blood. Seventy percent of American adults believe that approximately one million patients require blood transfusions each year. In fact, 4 million patients need blood every year.

Blood supplies have to be replenished constantly because it can only be held for 42 days and the platelets needed for some procedures are only good for five days.

The Red Cross normally has a drop in donations during the holiday season, and Haley says they try to plan ahead by organizing drives across the country in community centers and churches. She says the weather makes it hard for everyone to get out, so they are asking people in other parts of the country with good weather to give to help supply the other places in need.

Haley says people whose lives are immediately threatened get the blood first, and next comes less urgent needs. Sometimes people who are very ill and need the transfusions to stay alive can be put off for a day if necessary, but obviously that's not ideal.

Donors must be over 110 pounds and at least 17 years old. Those in high risk categories for HIV are not good candidates. People low in iron should try and consume more meat, fish, poultry or beans; iron is tested at blood drives, and those with low iron can't donate.

Calling 1-800-GIVE-LIFE will connect you to the nearest Red Cross blood center. If you make an appointment, you can get through the blood donation line faster.

Donating blood does entail two needle sticks. One is a finger stick and the other is the veno-puncture (puncture to the vein). People will be there to help you get through that. Haley says it's much better to be the donor than the patient who needs to get blood and thinking about that can make it easier. She adds that it's important to emember to have something to eat, preferably low fat, and something to drink before you donate.

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