The United States is seriously short of blood, according to national blood banking officials, in large part because of the public's false notion that a person can get AIDS by giving blood.
According to a survey released yesterday by the American Association of Blood Banks, 34 percent of those polled believed that acquired immune deficiency syndrome is linked to blood donation. Officials of the blood banking industry, who have seen donations lag for months because of AIDS fears, expressed surprise at the high percentage of people who held the erroneous belief.
"We had no idea that so many people are misinformed," said Gilbert Clark, executive director of the American Association of Blood Banks, which represents about half of the nation's 5,080 blood banks. "This is a blood shortage that can kill innocent men, women and children."
In metropolitan Washington, there is less than a one day supply of blood -- under 1,000 units -- at the Washington district office of the Red Cross. The office supplies 60 area hospitals and more than 93 percent of the region's blood.
Anything less than a four-to five-day supply is "uncomfortable and we're having to ask hospitals to take less," said Dr. Paul McCurdy, blood services director.
The Red Cross-Washington issued an "all types" blood alert on Monday after several weeks of trying unsuccessfully to acquire blood from other cities. "Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland and Richmond also have asked us for blood, which we've been unable to send," said McCurdy. Elective surgery in some area hospitals has been postponed, he said.
"The linkage of AIDS and the word 'blood' is what's causing the problem," said Jon Hutchens, project director of Hamilton & Staff, a Chevy Chase polling firm that surveyed national attitudes about blood donation for the blood bank association. "People confuse transfusion and donation."
Officials said the public is confused because of uncertainties surrounding the transmission of AIDS as well as publicity about the 252 adults and 34 children nationwide who have developed AIDS through blood transfusions.
All of the known cases involve blood that was used before a screening test was put into use last spring. The test is in use throughout the United States, blood officials said, and no cases of AIDS from transfusions from screened blood have been reported. But the blood banks' survey found only 46 percent of those polled knew of the screening test.
"The publicity about AIDS tends to emphasize the unknown," said McCurdy. "Unfortunately, some people have moved that attitude over to donation of blood. If there's anything we do know, it's that you don't catch anything by giving blood."
Dr. Eugene Berkman, medical director of the blood bank at the New England Medical Center in Boston, said the blood shortage has been worsened by customary depletions following holidays and because potential donors are deciding to reserve their blood for family and friends.
Companies, particularly smaller firms, also have canceled blood drives on their premises, he said.
"Companies have said, 'We don't understand this AIDS thing and we want no part' " in blood donation, he said.
Some good blood also is being discarded, Berkman said, when blood that first tests positive for the AIDS virus and later found to be negative is thrown out as a conservative precaution.
Berkman said blood banks customarily collect 12 million units of blood each year in the United States. He and other blood banking officials said there are no national figures to indicate how serious the shortage is, but said individual blood banks throughout the country are reporting less than one-day inventories.
"The problem began last summer with the usual low donations during vacation periods," said Clark. "Rock Hudson's death and the controversy over AIDS in the schools gave us a very poor September and it has not improved. Our members have been struggling throughout the fall and they have not succeeded in getting donors."
To correct public perceptions, the blood bank association issued two television messages and a 10-minute film for recruiters to use in persuading corporations to hold blood drives. "Blood and AIDS is not a major public health problem," said Clark. "Not having blood is."
McCurdy said those who wish to donate blood to the Red Cross may visit its center at 2025 E St. NW or call 728-6551.