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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Blood Transfusion: From Donors to Dealers

The voice at the end of the telephone line said that 100 milliliters of blood could be had for 100,000 to 400,000 rubles ($43 to $171), depending on the type. The woman gave no name, nor that of her company, but said to stand on a corner at Pushkin Square and a man would bring the preparation.

When she learned she was speaking to a journalist, she stopped talking.

"Blood money" has developed a new meaning in Russia, where a shortage of blood for transfusions has hit so hard that desperate relatives pay top dollar to buy illegal, unscreened blood on street corners and doctors are sometimes forced to give their own blood to save patients' lives.

"The situation is catastrophic," said Mark Raginsky of the Health Ministry's Central Blood Station.

"People don't want to be donors any more," he said. "None of the patriotism and enthusiasm of the Soviet era is left. They begin to remember about this only when something awful happens to their relatives."

Raginsky has good reason to feel nostalgia. In the heyday of the former Soviet Union, donating blood was organized on a grand scale, a matter of civic pride for the Soviet state that ranked alongside nuclear missiles, space flights and the Bolshoi ballet.

Thousands of people -- workers, peasants, students and soldiers -- would stand in line at blood stations all over the country to fulfill their "patriotic duty." They also got cash rewards, free dinner with a glass of red wine and a certificate entitling them to two days off work.

The resultant abundance of donated blood has disappeared as convincingly as the Soviet system itself.

Raginsky said blood stations were now being forced to accept donations from high-risk groups such as alcoholics and drug addicts in an attempt to make up the shortfall. The stations rely on screening procedures to ensure that infections are not passed on.

After screening, about 4 percent of donated blood turns out to be infected with either syphilis, hepatitis or AIDS -- a proportion Raginsky considered "normal" given the number of "high risk" donors.

Part of the problem is that the incentive to give blood disappeared with the Soviet order.

"In the past we used to take blood twice a month at big military plants and always had supplies for urgent cases. But since the reforms, people have been leaving these enterprises and the number of donors is a fraction of what it was," said Raginsky.

"Besides, at privatized plants people are making money so they are not interested in two days off and the tiny sum we can give them," he added.

Donors are now paid 6,000 rubles for every 100 milliliters of blood they give plus 5,000 towards "food." The maximum single donation is 400 milliliters.

Other potential donors are frightened away by fears that they could be infected by careless doctors.

Raginsky said that although the equipment at his central blood donation point was modern and there was no risk of infection, people have been frightened by several recent cases of infection and no longer trust doctors' assurances.

"Most of our donors are relatives of people who need blood for transfusion. Ten years ago we used relatives very rarely but now it is the most widespread method," he said.

Sveta Solovyova, 21, a student, said that she had come to the blood transfusion station to donate blood for her mother.

"I would never have come here if my mother had not needed my blood. I remember very well a case in Kalmykia where children were infected AIDS," she said, referring to a case in the late 1980s when some 90 children were infected with HIV by dirty syringes.

Compounding the problem, a skyrocketing crime rate has increased the demand for emergency blood transfusions.

Alina Mrachkovskaya, a surgeon at the city hospital No.20, said the number of bullet and stab wounds requiring large quantities of blood had recently increased enormously. Now almost all supplies were used for such emergency cases.

"Our clinics have become like front-line military hospitals," she said.

"We have to plan ordinary operations depending on whether we have blood or not," said Mrachkovskaya. "Sometimes doctors and nurses give their own blood to save a patient," she said.

Raginsky said that sometimes relatives bought blood from illegal companies, but its quality was dubious and usually doctors refused to use it.

Officials at the blood station said that while it was prohibited to use blood obtained in this way, relatives of patients could sometimes persuade doctors to go ahead.

"We don't know where these companies get blood preparations from. We tried to get in touch with the companies, but in vain," he said.

Raginsky offered a telephone number on a flyer offering blood preparations for sale. The woman's voice quoted a price and arranged a place of sale, explaining that most of her firm's blood preparations came from former Soviet republics, but she refused to say from which.