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Florida Donors Boosting Puerto Rico's Blood Supply Because Of Zika

To Puerto Rico with love: Tracking a donation from Leesburg to the island because of Zika virus.
To Puerto Rico with love: Tracking a donation from Leesburg to the island because of Zika virus.

Swain Padgett was helping out Puerto Rico's blood supply, and he didn't even know it.

A few weeks ago, Padgett was laying back in a recliner, blanket on his lap with the TV on, as a tube runs from his arm to a plasmaferesis machine. His blood spins in a centrifuge to separate his platelets and Padgett gets his red blood cells back.

Padgett can donate his platelets every two weeks. He’s donated more than 16 gallons of his A-positive blood.

“It was just a typical donation day to me until Ms. Ellen come in and explained that, unfortunately, because of the Zika virus, we’re gonna be sending some of my platelets to Puerto Rico,” he said. “Which I’m thrilled about, I’m happy to help.”

These living, breathing pale yellow platelets must travel more than 1,100 miles by land and air to reach a patient in Puerto Rico. And they must do it in five days.

But first: Why?

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said places where Zika virus is being caught locally should not accept blood donations until there’s a test. And just like that, the island commonwealth of Puerto Rico was in a pinch, needing to look elsewhere. Orlando-based OneBlood was one of three blood bank networks in the U.S. helping out.

Keeping the blood supply safe is just one tactic in the toolbox to fight Zika virus. Developing a Zika vaccine, developing a Zika test, and attacking the mosquitoes that spread the virus – either by going after the standing water where they breed or by introducing genetically-modified mosquitoes to reduce the population – are all being done to keep pregnant women from getting the virus linked to severe birth defects and other conditions. And as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed on Wednesday, the virus has a direct connection to microcephaly.

“Now, we don’t know for certain whether local transmission will arrive in the continental U.S., but we’re preparing for it,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told Health News Florida in a one-on-one interview.

“The data is continuing to emerge on Zika, we’re learning new things each and every day," Murthy said. "To me, what that means is we have to work hard to insure we’re communicating with the public to make sure the public knows what we know."

One new thing to know: The Food and Drug Administration in the past few weeks has approved an investigational test for the Zika virus for the blood supply. That means Puerto Rico can start collecting blood again, but it doesn’t mean the island is completely in the clear.

So that’s why OneBlood keeps helping out. One day after Swain Padgett donated his platelets in Leesburg, just northeast of Orlando, they’re at the OneBlood center in Orlando, waiting to be processed. They’re in a room-temperature cabinet that rocks back and forth to keep them from clotting. It sounds like a washing machine.

Alicia Prichard is the person in charge of getting these platelets to Puerto Rico.

“We are happy to help. Because if we were in the same situation, we would want others to help us,” she said.

OneBlood was sending 500 to 800 units of blood products every week to Puerto Rico – about 1 percent of the Orlando center’s supply. Shipments have slowed from every day to twice a week.

“In the next few weeks, I believe Puerto Rico will become at least 50 to 60 percent self-supporting,” Prichard said. “So I feel like our assistance will continue, but in a very decreased manner.”

Platelets are critical to letting your blood clot, and are often given to cancer patients who have too few of them to clot because of cancer or the treatment. Swain Padgett's bag of platelets were put in a package and driven to the airport, put on a plane, and given to a cancer patient and a trauma patient in Puerto Rico.

Padgett said he hopes the donation helps.

“I think I would want them to know that I’m happy to help them,” he said. “And that I look forward to being there in the future if they need me”