The government is so concerned that Surgeon General David Satcher has a committee hunting ways to get more people to donate blood more often, studying such incentives as giving donors time away from work or small rewards like T-shirts.
"We operate on a very thin margin of safety for the blood supply, and if that trend continues it would put us in a year-round shortage in a few years," said Dr. Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania, who heads a federal committee on blood issues.
The National Blood Data Resource Center is more pessimistic: Its studies predict that next year, Americans will donate just under 11.7 million units of blood but that hospitals will need 11.9 million units.
Blood donations are decreasing about 1 percent a year. Demand for blood is increasing by 1 percent a year. Adding to the pressure, the government soon will ban Americans from giving blood if they've traveled extensively in Great Britain on trips that added together total six months since Britain's mad cow disease epidemic began in 1980.
Mad cow disease has been linked to a human brain destroyer, so experts want the precaution of a donor ban even though there's no proof any mad cow-type illness could spread through human blood. The ban would cut the blood supply another 2.2 percent a year.
"When you need surgery, when you need cancer treatment, when a woman gives birth we all assume the blood will be there," Caplan said. "You can't make that assumption anymore."
His committee just recommended one change that could provide up to 300,000 more pints a year: Using blood from people with a genetic disease called hemochromatosis that causes them to build up too much iron. Giving blood regularly alleviates iron buildup. That blood is healthy, but today it's thrown away because it's a medical treatment that patients pay for.
Nobody really knows why donations are dropping, although blood banks say younger generations have never shown the enthusiasm of post-World War II donors. About 60 percent of Americans are estimated to be eligible donors, but only 5 percent donate.
It's partly convenience and being reminded that blood is needed, said Satcher. People would donate blood more often if they were reminded, he added.
The Central Florida Blood Bank proved that Satcher's right: It created an automated program that leaves messages recorded by an Orlando TV personality on previous donors' answering machines saying, "Please donate blood this week." Last Memorial Day, a typical shortage period, the RealCall program prompted a 16 percent donation response.
Blood banks hope Satcher's advisers will consider such programs in looking for ways to replace the donors who will be lost under the pendng British travel ban.
In addition, Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va., just asked the General Accounting Office to study how serious the shortage is, questioning the impact of that ban and of hemochromatosis donations.