We Want Your Blood! (Unless You’re a Traveler)

I drove across town to my local YMCA last week so I could do something a little selfless for the common good—donating blood. In the past six months I’ve gotten two mailers and two phone calls appealing for donations and heard a few more calls for help on the local news.

As has happened three out of the five times I’ve tried, however, I was rejected. The reason? I’d been to Playa del Carmen in Mexico recently—supposedly an area at risk for malaria. Never mind that hundreds of thousands of tourists pass through there each year and none of them has contracted malaria. And never mind that Cozumel, connected by a constant short ferry ride to Playa del Carmen, is not on the list. Apparently mosquitoes aren’t allowed on the boat.

Here are the rules, as the American Red Cross applies them:

“Wait 12 months after travel in an area where malaria is found. Wait 3 years after moving to the United States after living in a country where malaria is found. Persons who have spent long periods of time in countries where ‘mad cow disease’ is found are not eligible to donate. Persons who were born in or who lived in certain countries in Western Africa, or who have had close contact with persons who were born in or who lived in certain West African countries are not eligible to donate. This requirement is related to concerns about HIV Group O.”

In other words, if you’re an international traveler, there’s a better chance you’ll be rejected than accepted. (If you’re a gay male or you’re from most parts of Africa, the chance of rejection is 100%). My earlier rejection culprits were India and Korea. At least this last time they sent me away with a free t-shirt as a consolation prize.

A Few Examples
Do you like to see the great wonders of the world? If you’ve been to see the amazing structures of Borobudur (Indonesia), Ankor Wat (Cambodia), the Taj Mahal (India), or Chichen Itza (Mexico), you can toss that Red Cross mailer in the garbage.

Have you seen the Buddhist splendors of Bhutan? Visited the colorful markets of Bolivia, or gone birdwatching in Costa Rica? Stay in your cubicle on your company’s blood drive day.

Have you taken a nice little scuba diving trip to Belize or the Bay Islands of Honduras? Walk right past that bloodmobile.

If you’ve been in the military, you might as well request a Red Cross “do not call” listing. Anyone who has stationed in the following will be “deferred”: Afghanistan, Iraq, the South Korean border, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, Yemen, Columbia, Haiti, and the Philippines,

Are you in the oil industry? Stay home in the easy chair if you’ve traveled around Azerbaijan, Angola, Oman, or Sudan, . If you’ve lived in Europe for five years, including oil producer Norway, you can’t donate. If you have lived in Chad, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, or Nigeria for more than six months, you are “permanently deferred.”

Anyone who has lived in Europe for a total of over five years is out. That includes such expatriate magnets as Brussels, Paris, and Geneva. If you’ve lived in the UK for three months or more, including London, your blood is automatically rejected. (How many annual exchange students must this affect?)

No Shades of Gray
I was once deferred for three years because I lived in a suburb north of Seoul, South Korea. I can’t even remember getting so much as a mosquito bite in 14 months, but it’s still a “high-risk area.” Nearly all cases have involved military personnel or civilians working close to the DMZ and no deaths have been reported for years. But those are the rules.

There were 2,000 deaths from Malaria in all of the Americas in 2000. Yes, this includes all the insect-infested jungles along the Amazon, with many villages that are days away from a hospital of any kind. But the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater when the list is put in place.

In all of Europe, less than 150 people have died from Mad Cow disease in the past ten years. Meanwhile, the chance of dying from reactions to a blood transfusion are 2 in a million, or 1/20 the chance of getting struck by lightning. (The overriding cause of transfusion problems is “medical personnel error,” as in giving a patient the wrong blood type.) But hey, if the thought of a big needle stuck in your artery for five minutes gives you the creeps, now you have an excuse…

To see the full list of restricted areas, click here.

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