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ATHENS, Ohio – The popularity of for-profit blood plasma collection agencies as a source of extra income among college students could lead to shrinking donor rolls for the Red Cross and other nonprofit collection agencies.
A new Ohio University study of 411 college students age 18 to 22 found that 10 percent have sold their blood plasma at least once for payments typically ranging from $9 to $20 per donation. In that group, three out of five are former Red Cross donors who stopped donating blood when they started selling their plasma.
And most student donors don't need the money to get by, but are using the funds to pay for nonessential goods, says sociologist and study author Leon Anderson. Anderson, who published the research in the latest issue of the journal Sociological Spectrum, became interested in characteristics of paid plasma donors while doing research on the homeless, many of whom have been frequent paid donors at for-profit collection agencies in the United States.
When he launched this new study, Anderson expected to find at least one shared characteristic between paid student donors and those who are homeless – poverty. But instead, he found that the college students who sell their plasma are more likely to come from families with incomes of at least $50,000 and are more likely to be employed in part-time jobs than other college students. There also were more male paid donors than female.
"I would have bet that the poorest students would have the highest rates of paid donation," says Anderson, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology. "I was stunned when that wasn't the case."
Most study participants said they used the money for such things as cigarettes, alcohol and entertainment activities, rather than for essential needs.
"Many Americans tend to live beyond their means and these students are no different," Anderson says. "They turn to selling plasma as an easy source for ‘party money'."
The process by which blood plasma is collected, plasmapheresis, was created in the 1940s. Plasma companies produce a wide range of medical products, ranging from vaccines to products needed for the manufacturing of clotting agents such as Factor VIII, used for the treatment of hemophilia. And because plasma doesn't contain red blood cells, patients can receive a transfusion regardless of their blood type.
There are more than 400 for-profit plasma collection centers in the United States, making this country the largest supplier of blood plasma products in the world. According to plasma industry officials, there are between 1.5 million and 2 million paid donors, 70 percent of whom donate regularly. Because the body replenishes plasma more quickly than whole blood, plasma donations can be made twice weekly, to a maximum of 104 times a year. Whole blood can be donated only about once every two months.
College students have been targets of the paid donor recruiting strategies since the 1970s, Anderson says, driven in part by for-profit agencies' desire to improve the quality of the blood plasma supply. A large percentage of paid donors historically have come from the underclass and homeless populations, groups that tend to suffer from malnutrition, drug and/or alcohol addiction and a range of other health problems.
"If you're looking for a healthy blood supply, you need to have healthy donors," Anderson says, adding that this is one reason for-profit plasma collection agencies began to target more affluent sectors of the population, including college students.
However, Anderson's latest study, conducted at Ohio University, found that paid student donors do not always lead healthy lives. Paid donors were more than three times as likely as nondonors and four times as likely as Red Cross donors to drink alcohol five or more days a week. And while just one-eighth of nondonors and one-fourth of Red Cross donors were smokers, more than one-third of paid donors said they smoked cigarettes.
"These two, admittedly limited, health-related lifestyle indicators suggest that student plasma donors may indeed have less healthy lifestyle practices than other students," Anderson says.
Anderson is quick to say that his findings don't mean paid plasma donation should be eliminated. Research suggests the world's demand for blood and blood products cannot be met solely by relying on voluntary blood donations. Instead, Anderson says nonprofit and for-profit collection agencies need to work together with regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that the quality of the blood supply is high without compromising the health of the long-term paid donors. Recent advocacy by the National Institutes of Health for a council of health professionals, health care consumers and industry officials is a step in the right direction, Anderson says. Such a group would examine and monitor the effectiveness of current federal blood policies.
Anderson's future research plans include exploring ways to include paid plasma donors in the public discussion on effective blood collection policies.
The study, which was funded in part by the Ohio University Research Council, was co-authored by Kit Newell and Joseph Kilcoyne, former sociology students at Ohio University. Anderson holds an appointment in the College of Arts and Sciences.
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Contact: Leon Anderson, (740) 593-1377; firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Kelli Whitlock, (740) 593-2868; email@example.com
Materials provided by Ohio University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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