Blood Donors In Short Supply Amid Mexico Drug War

May 5, 2011

Monica Ortiz Uribe

Nurse Pamela Saenz draws blood from a student from the Instituto Tecnologico de Delicias at a mobile blood bank in the northern Mexican city of Delicias, Chihuahua.

Blood is in high demand in Mexican hospitals these days. The terrible drug violence means more patients in emergency rooms with life-threatening injuries like gunshot wounds that require blood transfusions.

But the blood donation system in Mexico is dysfunctional: In many cases, patients or their loved ones are responsible for seeking out their own donors.

Several years ago, Martin Gomez's mother became sick. He took her to a hospital in the Mexican border city of Juarez, where doctors determined she was bleeding internally and needed a transfusion. But there was a problem: no blood.

His mother was O negative, one of the rarest blood types. Hospital staff told Gomez it was up to him to find the blood.

"They told me, 'You go find it,' " Gomez says. "And I said, 'What do you mean find it? Where?' "

He was told to call other hospitals, he says. "I had to get a phone book and start calling the hospitals and ask for the blood bank and then ask, 'Do you have a unit of O negative?' And every hospital said no."

A Struggle For Change In Chihuahua

Gomez was desperate. He began calling TV and radio stations, imploring them to broadcast a plea asking people with O negative to come donate blood. Only one person came.

So Gomez crossed the border into El Paso, Texas, and went to a nonprofit blood bank, where he finally found the blood his mother needed. Then he had to smuggle it back into Mexico.

After a two-week struggle, Gomez's mother died. Seven years later, Gomez now works for that same blood bank in El Paso — United Blood Services, a nonprofit organization that delivers blood to U.S. hospitals.

"Because of what happened to her is the reason why I work here," he says.

Gomez is in charge of recruiting volunteer donors at United Blood Services. But in Mexico, every hospital collects its own blood. Patients or relatives must find donors to replace the blood they use, and Gomez says it's a broken system.

"It's something that I wish one day could stop — that blood is not dependable on people donating last moment," he says.

So Gomez has been instrumental in helping a blood bank at a hospital in northern Mexico make that change.

Dr. Alfonso Avitia heads the Chihuahua State Blood Transfusion Center, about four hours south of the border. He says that fewer than 3 percent of Mexicans donate blood voluntarily. Thanks in part to training and equipment donations from Gomez and United Blood Services, the city of Chihuahua now has the highest percentage of volunteer donors in the country — about 28 percent.

Making Progress

On a recent afternoon, Avitia drives an old Nissan sedan to the small town of Delicias, where an event almost unheard of in Mexico is taking place: a blood donation campaign.

The campaign is held outdoors on a university campus. The mood feels festive. Students who have donated sit under tents and socialize while others sit quietly outside the donation truck waiting their turn. Pablo Gonzalez, 20, is one of those donating blood for the first time.

"I'm going to give some blood to the people who need it," he says.

Sixty-five students showed up to donate, and that makes Avitia proud. With all the drug-related violence going on in Chihuahua, Avitia says they've had to increase their stock by about 15 percent. Reforming the donation system now is more important than ever.

"The community must realize that they are responsible for providing their own blood supply," Avitia says. His goal is to create a regional blood bank supplied by volunteer donors across the state.

There has been progress — with the exception of in Ciudad Juarez, the largest and most violent city in the state. Hospitals in Juarez have yet to agree on a unified plan. Meanwhile, blood banks struggle to keep their up their supplies. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.