China ends reciprocal blood donation, exacerbating the country’s chronic blood shortage problem

Society & Culture

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China is set to end its decades-long reciprocal blood donation system by the end of March, the Beijing News reports.

On February 5, the municipal health bureau in Beijing and the city’s Red Cross association jointly announced they would stop such practice by February 10, while other parts of China, including Shanghai, Tianjin, and Wuhan, already called an end to it before the capital.

While talking to the Beijing News, the National Health and Family Planning Commission of China explained that the decision was made after careful assessment of the overall blood supply status across the country. “Judging from the nationwide developments of non-remunerated blood donation, combined with experts’ research and analysis, China is ready to stop reciprocal blood donation,” the top health authority said.

Under the reciprocal blood donation system, patients in need of blood can ask their family members, friends, or anyone they know to donate blood of the type they want. After showing certificates of blood donation to their hospitals, patients can be rewarded with the same amount of blood to be used on themselves.

The system was installed in the mid-1990s when China started to crack down on commercial blood stations after an explosive scandal — farmers in rural areas were encouraged to sell their blood to some illegal agents called “blood heads” (血头 xuètóu), who prioritized profits over the quality of blood and hygiene, and thus caused a large-scale HIV infection from blood transfusions.

According to China’s blood donation law, which has been in place since 1998, “to guarantee citizens’ urgent need of blood, China encourages patients to tap into their social resources,  such as their family members, friends, and colleagues, to make reciprocal blood donation.”

Since its implementation, the new policy has been well received by Chinese patients. Compared with passively waiting for hospitals to distribute the limited blood supply, reciprocal blood donation ensures that patients will receive blood normally within three days after they present certificates required by their hospitals.

However, as Reuters pointed out in 2015, it also gave birth to a new generation of “blood heads,” who pay people to donate blood at a state blood bank and sell their donation certificates to patients in need.

In a viral article we reported on yesterday, which details the last 29 days of a 60-year-old Chinese man who died after contracting influenza in January, the author recalls his interactions with some “blood heads,” who charged 1,500 yuan ($237) for 400 cc’s of blood. It is safe to speculate that the decision to end the system is partly attributed to the central government’s determination to eliminate the gray-area market of illegal blood trade in donated blood, but before the anticipated good outcome arrives, early impacts of the decision have already been seen among Chinese patients, in a deadly way for some.

Viral article detailing last 29 days of a flu patient shakes up Chinese internet

On February 14, a Weibo user named 花火爱丽丝 posted a since-deleted article that says her mother, a leukemia patient, almost died a few days ago because the hospital was out of blood and due to the new policy, she couldn’t actively seek blood donation for her mother. “Because of this document, now my mother could do nothing but wait to die. Who can understand our desperation?” she wrote.