Jeff Jardine

January 1, 2014

Jeff Jardine: Tattoo and piercing craze shrinking Central Valley blood donor pool

There are two questions on blood bank questionnaires that, when answered “yes,” eliminate the prospective donor for at least a year. “In the past 12 months, have you had a tattoo?” and “In the past 12 months, have you had an ear or body piercing?”

Recently, I received a call from the Delta Blood Bank asking me to donate, well, blood. That, after all, is the organization’s specialty. It didn’t ask for guacamole.

Before you give blood, you are asked to complete a lengthy questionnaire that begins, “Are you feeling healthy and well today?” If you didn’t feel healthy and well, you would have stayed home to watch Arizona and Boston College in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl. Or not. But since you feel healthy and well, you go to the blood drive and fill in the “yes” bubble using the ballpoint pen secured to a clipboard by a chain that is always in your way.

The healthy and well question is pretty much the only one to which you answer “yes.” Virtually all of the others had better be “no” if you intend to donate. The blood banks need to know whether you have a sexually transmitted disease such as HIV/AIDS or gonorrhea. They want to know if you’ve been in prison or jail for more than 72 hours. They need to know if you’ve had hepatitis or if you’re taking prescription medications for any kind of ailment or condition.

They want to know if you’ve traveled to countries where outbreaks of diseases including malaria, mad cow or others have occurred.

They ask questions you won’t see on a 1040 income tax filing, such as, “From 1977 to the present, have you received money, drugs or other payment for sex?”

Every bit of data is important because the blood drawn is supposed to save a life, not contaminate or threaten one.

Indeed, truly benevolent donors can answer “no” to all of them. But there are two other seemingly harmless questions that, when answered “yes,” eliminate the prospective donor for at least a year.

“In the past 12 months, have you had a tattoo?”

“In the past 12 months, have you had an ear or body piercing?”

This isn’t in any way intended to demean or criticize body-art aficionados. Like anything else, they make their own choices in life.

President Teddy Roosevelt, according to various online experts, had a family crest tattooed on his chest. President Dwight Eisenhower supposedly bore a tattoo somewhere, though if alive and in the Army today, Gen. Eisenhower would be prohibited from displaying a tattoo below the elbow or knees. (He’d also be 123 years old. His body art would have been covered by a great-great-grandfather clause). And, rumor has it, President Franklin Pierce had a tattoo (but not a piercing). This tattooed triumvirate did well individually and collectively.

Still, while rules in some other states are more lenient, California prohibits people from giving blood for at least a year after getting new artwork or piercings. Blood banks – primarily Delta and BloodSource here in the Valley – simply don’t want the risk of taking tainted blood, which can occur when someone goes to an unlicensed tattoo artist or to one who doesn’t use brand-new, sterilized implements for each client, according to Leslie Botos, BloodSource’s vice president of public affairs.

Last year, testing detected the West Nile virus in the blood of a Delta donor even before symptoms emerged. “We have to have incredible safety when it comes to the blood supply,” Botos said.

Consequently, the questions involving tattoos and piercings probably bar more prospective donors in a month than do all of the others combined over the course of a year. Why? Because they have surged dramatically in popularity over the past decade.

One in five American adults now sports a tattoo, said Annie Stevenson, Delta Blood Bank’s marketing director. About 38 percent of the population is eligible to donate, though only about 5 percent of those eligible do give blood on a regular basis. Delta turned away fewer people in 2013 for answering “yes” to the tattoo and piercing questions because they’d already been denied in 2012 and thus knew the rules, Stevenson said.

“Our telerecruitment department reports that the number of donors they call who state they cannot come in due to a recent tattoo are considerable, but consistent with the last few years,” she said. “When we ask nondonors if they would consider becoming a blood donor, many of them say they are afraid of needles. The unfortunate situation here is that the segment of the population getting tattoos and piercings would likely not fall in that category and may have been much more willing to donate.”

A blood bank’s success has depended and always will depend on finding enough people willing and eligible to give. Some with tattoos might never donate again, Stevenson said. “As soon as they get one (tattoo), they start planning what their next one will be,” she said.

Sometimes, those choices come with effects they might not have considered. Needs for a specific blood type can change daily, and shortages do occur.

All of which leaves the blood banks to work harder to find those who are eligible and get them to donate.

“I tell young people, ‘Everything you do has an impact on someone else,’ ” BloodSource’s Botos said.

And determines which bubble you fill in on the questionnaire.

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