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As Zika Impacts Puerto Rico, Wisconsin Blood Donations Sent to Help

Ann-Elise Henzl
Some bags of blood at the BloodCenter of Wisconsin have been sent more than 2,000 miles away, to help people in an area affected by the Zika virus

The CDC confirmed this week that Zika virus does, indeed, cause severe brain damage in infants

The type of mosquito that can carry the virus is not expected to travel as far north as Wisconsin. Yet, blood centers here are helping regions where Zika exists.

The BloodCenter of Wisconsin has been sending shipments of blood to Puerto Rico.

Hospitals in Puerto Rico need blood because the FDA has blocked people who live there from donating blood. The FDA is concerned that if someone infected with Zika donates blood, it could spread to the person getting the transfusion.

"We have done two shipments. [The] first shipment was in March, and we sent 145 units of blood. And our last shipment was in April, where we shipped 105 units," Jerry Gottschall, ​senior medical director for the BloodCenter of Wisconsin, says.

People donating at the BloodCenter don’t seem to care where their donations end up. Tracy Damon is a nurse who's given blood for more than 20 years. "The blood don't just appear magically. Someone has to donate it. Instead of letting it sit in a refrigerator somewhere, if someone can use it, give it to them," Damon says.

Another regular donor, Mequon resident Susan Rennane shares the sentiment. "They know here what's needed here, and then if there's blood needed in a crisis like that -- that's wonderful that they have the technology to do that, right? Send our blood that far away," she says.

Before the BloodCenter ships any local blood, workers take steps to ensure its safety. Gottschall says the center updated its screening process in light of the Zika threat.

"Our major question that we ask of donors -- have they traveled to a Zika area, which is almost any place south of the border of the United States and through South-Central America and the Caribbean," Gottschall says.

If the donor answers "yes," Gottschall says the center turns the person away, temporarily.

"We ask them to wait 28 days before they could donate, because [after] that period of time, you will know that you've become infected with Zika or have symptoms of it. Or, if you had it before, it will have been cleared from the blood and the blood will be safe to donate," he says.

Gottschall is not sure how long Puerto Rico will require the center's help. He says the FDA has just approved a test to check blood for the presence of Zika. It could allow Puerto Rico to resume local donations. But he says if the need continues or grows, blood centers should be able to help.

"I think the answer across the United States [is] that if it got really bad, and there was a need across a broad region for blood, that our donors would come forward. We'd have to increase our collections to meet that demand, but I think we could meet that demand for a significant period of time," Gottschall says.

The BloodCenter always keeps an adequate supply to meet the need here, he says. The Center's rule is to ship out no more than 10 percent of what the center has on hand.

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