CNN Food and Health

Blood banks throw out blood from iron overload patients

Part two of a series

November 27, 1995
Web posted at: 12:53 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Elizabeth Schwartz


ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Once a week, Ron Richardson gives blood. And once a week, the nurse throws it away.

giving blood

Richardson, like a million other Americans, has hemachromatosis -- iron overload disease. He's perfectly healthy except for the fact that his body absorbs too much iron from foods. Even if he eats just a little bit of iron, it is stored in his organs -- and can eventually cause heart disease, liver disease, and other problems.

But once detected, the treatment for iron overload disease is simple: to give blood. Over time, blood-letting forces the iron out of the organs. Some patients give blood once every few months. Others, like Richardson and George Aulbach, give once a week.

"The only medication I ever get, the only thing I ever do is to come down here and give blood," says Aulbach.

Since 1978, Aulbach has given blood 350 times. And each time, it's marked as hazardous -- although it is not.

Blood from iron overload disease patients is perfectly safe and normal. But despite that, blood banks, where blood shortages are a constant problem, routinely reject the blood.

The reason that blood is normal in hemachromatosis patients is that the iron accumulates only in the organs, not in the blood. Blood banks acknowledge that there would be nothing dangerous about using this blood for transfusions.


"The disease hemachromatosis is an inherited disease," says Dr. Harvey Klein of the American Association of Blood Banks. "It can't be transmitted through a blood transfusion." (110K AIFF sound or 110K WAV sound)

But the blood banks have another concern -- the patients' honesty. Everyone who gives blood must answer a series of questions, such as "have you ever had hepatitis as an adult or do you have a cold right now?" A "yes" to one of these questions means the Red Cross will refuse to take the blood.

And since iron overload patients must give blood, blood banks worry that the patients won't answer the questions truthfully.

"Perhaps some people who have an incentive to donate blood are less candid in their donor history, and the donor history is an important screen," says Klein.


Many patients with hemachromatosis wish the banks would distribute their blood.

"I would feel a lot happier if it were being contributed and being used, because I do have to give so much of it," says Richardson. "And it's perfectly good blood." (98K AIFF sound or 98K WAV sound)

It is estimated that one out of every 200 U.S. citizens has iron overload disease ... and patients are beginning to organize in hopes of convincing blood banks to put their blood to good use.

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