Drug Violence Strains Blood Supply At Mexican Hospitals
April 19, 2011

EL PASO, Texas -- Blood is in high demand in Mexican hospitals these days.

The terrible drug violence plaguing the country has created an increase in patients with life threatening injuries, like gunshot wounds. Those patients require a lot of blood. 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. That can create added stress in what is an already stressful situation.

In extreme cases, patients die because of the lack of blood.

One blood center in the northern city of Chihuahua is trying to reform the system. The center is receiving help from a non-profit blood bank in El Paso called United Blood Services. Leading the effort on the American side is Martin Gomez, a man who has dedicated himself to reforming the Mexican blood bank system because of a devastating experience with his mother.

Seven years ago, during a Fourth of July weekend, Gomez's mother became sick. He took her to a hospital in the Mexican border city of Juarez, where she lived. Doctors determined she was bleeding internally and needed a transfusion. But there was a problem: The hospital didn't have the kind of blood she needed. 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 said. “And I said, 'What do you mean find it? Where?' ”

Thanks in part to training and equipment donated by Martin Gomez and United Blood Services, the city of Chihuahua now has the highest percentage of volunteer donors in the country: About 28 percent.

On a recent afternoon, Dr. Avitia drove an old Nissan sedan to the small town of Delicias, where his staff had organized an event that is almost unheard of in Mexico: A blood donation campaign.

The event was held outdoors on a university campus. The mood was festive. Students who had just donated sat under tents and socialized while chomping on sandwiches and cookies. Others sat quietly outside the donation truck waiting their turn. Some, like 20-year-old Pablo Gonzalez, were a little nervous.

“I'm going to give some blood to the people who need it,” Gonzalez said. “It's my first time.”

At the end of the day, 65 students donated blood. That makde Dr. Avitia proud. He said volunteer blood is seven times safer than blood from family and friends.

“Replacement blood is compromised blood,” he said. “You are more likely to get a person whose blood is not suitable for donation.”

Moreover, under the replacement system, hospitals tend to have only as much blood as they use. There is rarely any excess blood left over for emergencies. With all the drug-related violence going on in Chihuahua, Avitia said they have 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 said.

His goal is to create a regional blood bank supplied by volunteer donors across the state. There has been progress. The exception is Ciudad Juarez, the largest and most violent city in the state.

Hospitals in Juarez have yet to agree on a unification plan. Meanwhile, blood banks struggle to keep up their supplies. One blood bank administrator at a major Juarez hospital said their supply was running dangerously low this week, just as the city enters the busy Easter holiday.

in part to training and equipment donated by Martin Gomez and United Blood Services, the city of Chihuahua now has the highest percentage of volunteer donors in the country: About 28 percent.

On a recent afternoon, Dr. Avitia drove an old Nissan sedan to the small town of Delicias, where his staff had organized an event that is almost unheard of in Mexico: A blood donation campaign.

The event was held outdoors on a university campus. The mood was festive. Students who had just donated sat under tents and socialized while chomping on sandwiches and cookies. Others sat quietly outside the donation truck waiting their turn. Some, like 20-year-old Pablo Gonzalez, were a little nervous.

“I'm going to give some blood to the people who need it,” Gonzalez said. “It's my first time.”

At the end of the day, 65 students donated blood. That makde Dr. Avitia proud. He said volunteer blood is seven times safer than blood from family and friends.

“Replacement blood is compromised blood,” he said. “You are more likely to get a person whose blood is not suitable for donation.”

Moreover, under the replacement system, hospitals tend to have only as much blood as they use. There is rarely any excess blood left over for emergencies. With all the drug-related violence going on in Chihuahua, Avitia said they have 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 said.

His goal is to create a regional blood bank supplied by volunteer donors across the state. There has been progress. The exception is Ciudad Juarez, the largest and most violent city in the state.

Hospitals in Juarez have yet to agree on a unification plan. Meanwhile, blood banks struggle to keep up their supplies. One blood bank administrator at a major Juarez hospital said their supply was running dangerously low this week, just as the city enters the busy Easter holiday.