When my older brother, Sam, came home from college, he was interested in making some extra spending money. My mother is a registered nurse and suggested Sam consider donating his plasma because her unit is always talking about the need to make this critical blood component more readily available. She went on to say he could even get paid for the effort. Sam did not need much convincing. Within a week, he was $65 richer for about two hours worth of “work.” While his original intention was just to make a few extra bucks, he soon learned that his donation would be instrumental in saving or improving lives.
There needs to be more awareness placed on plasma donation in the United States. Donations are needed in the U.S. to help address a wide array of medical issues, to replenish and sustain the global supply of plasma and to offer a beneficial financial incentive to those who donate. It is imperative that the U.S. focuses more on this industry in order to bring it to the forefront of society.
So what really is plasma? Plasma is a clear, yellow liquid that makes up the majority of blood. Plasma transports antibodies, waste and nutrients throughout the body. Some of its functions include helping the body maintain adequate blood pressure and volume, securing a healthy pH balance, supplying proteins for blood clotting and immunity and carrying electrolytes to the muscles. It is safe to say that plasma plays an integral role in the functioning of the body.
And how does plasma donation work? Plasma is obtained through a process called plasmapheresis. Essentially, plasma is extracted from whole blood, and the remaining blood components are returned to the donor with a saline solution. The body then begins the short process of replacing the plasma that was just extracted. Plasma donations are frozen to be used for patient transfusions or manufactured into pharmaceuticals.
Plasma therapies are life-saving for many. Patients with rare diseases, cardiopulmonary issues, pediatric HIV, liver cancer, autoimmune diseases and bleeding disorders, as well as burn, shock and trauma victims all benefit from plasma donations. Additionally, plasma is used in treatment against Rh sensitization — a condition that affects 15% of pregnant women. In this instance, the plasma proteins prevent conditions like jaundice and anemia at birth.
A great deal of plasma is certainly needed to treat all of these people. Approximately 10,000 units of plasma are needed every day in the U.S. alone. It is also important to note that plasma cannot be manufactured, so the sole source of plasma used to treat patients are donations. These donations have an immense effect on the quality of life for so many people. For example, 1,200 donations will treat someone with hemophilia (a bleeding disorder) for one year.
The U.S. plays a major role in the global plasma industry, supplying 70% of the world’s plasma. In countries like Australia and France, only public and not-for-profit sectors are permitted to collect plasma, and they do not compensate donors. In contrast, the U.S. permits public, not-for-profit and commercial private plasma collection centers to operate. These commercial centers offer a financial incentive to donors which allows the U.S. to support the rest of the world with their plasma supply.
The role of the U.S. in the global plasma industry was accentuated during the coronavirus pandemic. Donations decreased by 20% in 2020 because people did not want to risk exposure by visiting donation centers. This had a global impact on the plasma supply during a time when its need actually increased. Interestingly, some COVID-19 treatments explored transfusing the plasma and antibodies of patients who recovered from COVID-19 to those currently suffering from the virus. The pandemic affected millions of people worldwide, so the impacts of the U.S. plasma shortage were felt even more drastically in other countries that rely so heavily on the U.S. for imports.
Finally, not only can donors be instrumental in plasma treatments, but they also receive the added bonus of some financial compensation, which is why the U.S. is a leader in plasma collection. A major plasma collection center in the U.S., Octapharma Plasma, offers up to $75 for referring a friend to donate. Donors receive between $35 and $65, depending on the center. Donations typically take a little more than an hour, and this stipend is certainly more than one can earn for an hour of a minimum wage job. Plasma donations provide some immediate relief for those struggling financially. While this highlights other flaws in our society, it does further emphasize how the plasma donation industry is helpful to many in the U.S. — those who receive donations and those who donate.
Critics are quick to point out the ethical concerns of the plasma industry. These centers are often saturated in low-income communities because that is where the financial incentive is most attractive. Many of these are located on the Mexican border, targeting potential immigrants. Ten percent of all plasma that is extracted in the U.S. comes from Mexicans crossing the border. Critics have a valid concern here; the U.S. should not be placing so much of the responsibility for plasma donations on low-income communities. The U.S. is on a slippery slope when they attach a monetary incentive to plasma donations, but without this incentive, the industry would suffer. Two steps to improve the industry are to disperse donation centers across the country and to promote the benefits of giving plasma to all audiences. If donation centers were spread throughout the country, the responsibility wouldn’t fall so drastically on low-income communities. Additionally, the benefits of plasma donation should be promoted to highlight the impact it has on patients’ lives. It is estimated that 6.8 million people donate blood each year. The importance and impact of blood donations are well-known; the same should be true of plasma donations so people feel more inclined to donate. Sam only knew about this because my mother works at a hospital. This message should be bolstered, so it is more mainstream just like blood donations. For instance, this message could be advertised for the younger generation, through platforms like TikTok or Instagram.
In conclusion, while raising awareness of plasma donations is an intricate issue, emphasis on the need to target all demographics and increase social awareness must become more prominent in the philanthropic aspects of society.
Jessica Robinson is a junior studying Political Science and Psychology. She is from Bethesda, MD, and is currently residing in Lewis Hall. Jessica serves as Director of Outreach for BridgeND.
BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets bi-weekly on Mondays at 7 p.m. in Duncan Student Center Meeting Room 1, South W106 to learn about and discuss current political issues, and can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @bridge_ND.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.