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Air Force 1st Lt. Jerome Vinluan, the assistant director of the Armed Services Blood Bank Center, displays the center's stock of units of blood. As of Friday, the center had 102 units on hand. They're supposed to always stock at least 150.
Air Force 1st Lt. Jerome Vinluan, the assistant director of the Armed Services Blood Bank Center, displays the center's stock of units of blood. As of Friday, the center had 102 units on hand. They're supposed to always stock at least 150. (Fred Zimmerman / S&S)

CAMP LESTER, Okinawa — The instant disqualification of potential blood donors returning from Iraq is putting a strain on Okinawa’s blood supply.

The Armed Services Blood Bank Center here is saying it’s in “dire need” of new blood donors.

Any servicemember who steps foot inside Iraq will be disqualified from giving blood anywhere from one to three years, Becky Leavitt, a blood-donor recruiter, said Friday.

Depending on where servicemember spent time, they can be banned because of the possibility of exposure to leishmaniasis or malaria, she said.

Leishmaniasis is a parasitic disease transmitted by the bite of sand flies and can either be in a skin or internal organ form, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site (www.cdc.gov).

The skin form is characterized by sores that develop anywhere from weeks to months after a person is bitten. If untreated, the sores can last years.

The disease’s internal organ form shows symptoms such as fever, weight loss, enlargement of the spleen and liver, and anemia. Symptoms can take months or years to develop after a person is infected. If untreated, it’s typically fatal.

Leavitt said anyone whose foot even touches the sand in Iraq is automatically barred from giving blood for one year because of the threat of leishmaniasis. Depending on the length of stay in a malaria-endemic area, servicemembers may be kept from giving blood for up to three years.

Leavitt said the restrictions are really hurting the center, which supplies the Pacific region. More than 90 percent of their donors are active-duty military.

“We need dependents and civilians to start donating regularly,” Leavitt said. “All advertised drives are open to anyone.”

The center has never been overly concerned about numbers because it’s always had the potential to bring them up when servicemembers return from deployments. But now, it’s the potential for a shortage that worries officials because the number of qualified donors is dwindling.

If the blood bank can’t find more donors, it may have to rely on a reserve back in the United States. But that could impact GIs who are in harm’s way.

“The facilities that are treating the casualties [in Iraq] are relying on the same emergency supply stateside that we do if we don’t have enough donors to supply the Pacific,” Leavitt said. “They need those reserves now.”

The center can barely keep up with demand, she said.

As of Friday, the bank had sent out 141 units — pints — and 212 units in October. It currently has 102 units on hand, but it’s supposed to maintain at least 150. A large supply is needed because one trauma alone can take up to 40 units or more.

The center has a donation quota of 300 units each month, but even if that figure is met, it doesn’t mean a surplus.

“We went 55 over quota last month, but we shipped out so much we ended lower in inventory than when we started,” Leavitt said. “Two months in a row we went over, and then we look at inventory numbers and say, ‘What happened? Where did it go?’”

Another reason the blood bank can’t keep up, Leavitt added, is because of unusually high demand.

“People who don’t usually request blood from us are because their supply is drying up,” she said.

Malaria and leishmaniasis aren’t the only diseases making it difficult to find donors, said Air Force 1st Lt. Jerome Vinluan, the blood bank’s assistant director. Severe acute respiratory syndrome remains an issue, and the effects of mad cow disease are still being felt.

Vinluan said anyone stationed in Europe between 1980 and 1996 are barred from donating indefinitely because of mad cow disease. That restriction alone kept 25 percent of donors from ever giving again. Those who visited a country on the SARS list, or even went through an airport there, can’t donate blood for 28 days.

“The [Food and Drug Administration] makes it more challenging when they put a new country on the list,” Vinluan said.

For information about qualifications and blood drives, go to www.oki.med.navy.mil, click on information for patients and community, then blood donor program.

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