Recently I had the opportunity to interview the Deputy Director for Policy at the Armed Services Blood Program, Lieutenant Commander Aaron J. Harding, MSC, U.S. Navy, about the organization and the challenges of collecting blood for the services.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about the Armed Services Blood Program’s key activities?
A: The Armed Services Blood Program’s (ASBP) mission is to support military operations and patient care at military medical facilities world-wide. Blood support to medical units in Afghanistan is a primary focus that includes the availability of blood products throughout the continuum of care to our wounded warrior from the battlefield to here at home.
Q. Why does the military have its own blood donation program? Why not take from civilian reserves such as those collected by the Red Cross?
A: Our blood program supports the warfighter, so by having our own program we can quickly respond to any contingency by way of an integrated system involving each of the Services; from collecting blood to moving it to where it needs to be. Civilian blood reserves would not be able to meet demands for such a situation without impacting the delivery of blood to civilian hospitals across the country.
Q. Are there any specific risks or challenges associated with world-wide travel undertaken by military members in relationship to the blood they donate? For example disease exposure, vaccinations, or other conditions that might change the blood that is donated?
A: Military, as well as civilian, donors are impacted by world-wide travel to countries at risk of malarial infections and those who have traveled to the United Kingdom (UK) and Europe between 1980 to 1996 due to the risk of transmitting Variant Creutzfeld-Jacobs disease through blood transfusion. Because large numbers of military and civil service personnel and their family members have been stationed in the UK and Europe during this time period, the ASBP is impacted more than our civilian counterparts. There are other eligible criteria for medical conditions, medications and immunizations that are varying that will be assessed when interviewed prior to donating.
Q. Is there more or less testing done on military blood vs. civilian reserves? Why or why not? What kinds of tests are performed?
A: Blood collected at military donor centers are tested to the same standards as those collected by civilian donor centers. Both military and civilian blood donor centers must meet federal regulatory and accreditation standards when collecting and manufacturing blood and blood products for transfusion. Blood is tested for the following infectious diseases according to federal guidelines to ensure the blood supply is safe: HIV, HTLV, Hepatitis B and C, Syphilis, and Chagas disease. For platelet products, testing for bacterial contamination occurs before they’re released for transfusion.
Q. What happens to the blood once it is collected?
A: After a unit of blood is collected, it goes through several manufacturing, strict handling and review of donor questionnaire and testing results before the red blood cell, plasma and platelet products are acceptable for distribution. These processes are in place, and periodically audited, to prevent an unacceptable unit from being released into the available inventory.
Q. What blood products are collected / created from the raw blood donations?
A: From whole blood, three products can be collected: red blood cells, plasma and platelets. Blood types that are most needed are “O” negative and “AB.” Type “O” negative is the universal donor for red blood cells, while the “AB” blood type is the universal donor for plasma.
Q. How is blood stored until it is needed?
A: Each of the three blood products is stored differently. Red blood cells are refrigerated until they’re released for transfusion. Plasma products are frozen and must be thawed and then refrigerated prior to being released for transfusion. Platelets are stored at room temperature in an incubator and must be gentle agitated to maintain platelet function.
Q. What are the technical challenges of getting blood from where it is to where it is needed?
A: An integrated system for cold chain storage to get blood to the right place at the right time in the right amount at the right temperature is the key to the success of our mission. Once the blood products are ready for distribution, the military has established this integrated tri-service operation for moving the blood from within the United States to anywhere in the world to support a military or humanitarian operation. It is for this very reason that the ASBP maintains its own blood program.
Q. How can the general public donate blood to the ASBP?
A: The ASBP actively recruits only eligible service members and federal employees to donate with the ASBP. However, those civilians who have access to federal property where we conduct blood drives are more than welcome to donate. We also let our civilian donors who cannot access our drives know that with roughly 5 percent of the population donating blood on a routine basis, more donors are needed to support civilian blood donor centers. In addition, local military installations work with community blood centers to maximize the opportunity for everyone to donate, especially at those installations where there is not a military blood donor center.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share about ASBP with our readers?
A: If anyone is interested in saving a life, you can be a hero by donating blood on a routine basis. To become a blood donor today and find a military donor center go to www.militaryblood.dod.mil. You can find us online and interact with our staff at www.facebook.com/militaryblood or www.twitter.com/militaryblood.
Lieutenant Commander Aaron J. Harding is Deputy Director for Policy at the Armed Services Blood Program Office, Falls Church, Virginia. The Armed Services Blood Program Office is a DOD field operating agency, coordinating the blood programs of the Military Departments and Combatant Commands for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs and the Joint Chief of Staff, J4 HSSD. Lieutenant Commander Harding earned a Bachelor of Science in clinical laboratory sciences from Arizona State University in 1995 and a Master of Science in Immunohematology from George Washington University in 2005. He is also a Certified Specialist in Blood Banking with the American Society of Clinical Pathologist.