Explaining the blood business

Staff writer

Blood is both a precious resource and a big business, and no nation can compete with the U.S. when it comes to the business end.

"The United States is the OPEC of blood plasma, without question,'' says Douglas Starr, author of the 1998 book "Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce'' (Alfred A. Knopf). "We are the world's biggest source of plasma. No country produces anywhere near the amount of plasma we do, and we are the world's biggest exporter of plasma products.''

Plasma is the fluid part of blood that aids in coagulation. Plasma is used to make, among other products, Factor 8, which hemophiliacs take to help their blood clot.

How the U.S. came to dominate the global marketplace is but one facet of Starr's investigative social history, which Publisher's Weekly named one of the best nonfiction books of 1998. Starr will read from his work at 8 p.m. today in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center on the University at Albany's uptown campus.

His visit is part of the New York State Writers Institute's spring series, and it includes an informal seminar on the craft of science writing at 4 p.m. today in Humanities 290, on the university's uptown campus. Both events are free to the public.

World War II was a watershed event in countless ways, including the business of blood, according to Starr. During the war the U.S. became proficient in collecting plasma, which was needed to treat injured troops.

"We had it and the Nazis didn't,'' says Starr, 48, who is codirector of the Graduate Program in Science Journalism at Boston University. It's hard to overstate the importance of this often overlooked comparison between the Allied forces and the German coalition when studying World War II, he adds.

Multinational pharmaceutical companies headquartered in the U.S. are criticized by many European countries because they pay for plasma donations, Starr notes. "This goes against a moral code in many countries, which says, 'How can you pay for blood, or plasma?' They think it should be a voluntary thing, yet they never have enough.

"The irony is, they publicly condemn Americans for paying for plasma, and then they never have enough and wind up buying it from us.''

Plasma can be extracted as often as twice per week, while blood donations are limited to once every two months. During a plasma donation, the red and white blood cells are returned to the donor. Plasma is sold overseas in a variety of forms: some raw for processing, some that has been intermediately processed, and some in its enhanced forms, such as Factor 8.

There is, it seems, a "show me the money'' aspect to our giving the gift of life. While paid-for plasma collections continue unabated, free donations of blood lag far behind in this country.

The Red Cross and other organizations in America receive donations from approximately 5 percent of the population, compared with 10 percent donation rates in most European countries.

"There have been numerous studies attempting to determine why our donation rate is half that of European countries,'' Starr says. "So far, nobody's really figured it out.''

Starr majored in French literature and zoology while at Rutgers University. He started working on a doctorate in marine biology at Duke, but dropped out after one year "when I realized I was a writer at heart.''

He has written extensively for Audubon magazine, as well as Smithsonian and Sports Illustrated. Starr also served as science editor for the PBS series "Bodywatch.''

First published on Thursday, February 25, 1999

Life & Leisure
Copyright 1999, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Douglas Starr