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In this MD Newsline exclusive interview with Aviva Klein, Founder and CEO of the University Blood Initiative, we discuss how racism and inequity have impacted the American blood shortage. We also discuss how young, diverse, and local blood donors can help end the shortage.

MD Newsline:

Can you share with us when you founded the University Blood Initiative (UBI) and your reasons for doing so? 

 

Aviva Klein:

“When I was in college at the University of Chicago, I started volunteering with our local blood donation center at the University of Chicago Medicine. Initially, I volunteered to see a new area of medicine and meet new friends. Over time, I became close with the center staff and the Associate Director of Transfusion, Dr. Chancey Christenson. Then, I started to learn about the importance of young and diverse donors and the instability of the U.S. blood supply.

Speaking with patients affected by donations, especially those with sickle cell disease, deeply touched me. After our model proved to be successful and I realized no one else was fighting this fight, I decided to give it a go. I am not going to sit by and do nothing while people die over something so preventable.

Blood donation is a forgotten yet vital part of our medical system, which so many patients, from those with cancer to new mothers, depend on. In working with the UBI, I am trying to make healthier communities and do my part in bridging health inequities.”

 

MD Newsline:

What is the University Blood Initiative’s mission?

 

Aviva Klein:

“Our purpose is to end blood shortages to prevent more unnecessary deaths.  Our vision is to revolutionize the blood world. Finally, our mission is to establish a fiercely collaborative network of strong, local, and independent blood centers at the cutting edge of society, systems, science, and social and public policy with the shared purpose of achieving a sustainable and equitable blood supply for the good of all.”

 

MD Newsline:

Why is it so important that young, diverse, and local donors are engaged in donating blood? 

 

Aviva Klein:

“Currently, the average blood donor is a 40-year-old Caucasian male. In 10-20 years, as this group becomes less likely to be eligible for donation, we will have a serious crisis on our hands. Already, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, shortages were common. In the summer of 2019, there was a moment when no entity in the entire country had platelets. We need to engage young donors to ensure the sanctity of our supply for years to come.

In addition, diverse donors are pivotal due to antigen matching. Diverse donors are especially vital for diseases like sickle cell disease. African Americans are also more likely to have O- blood, which is critical to have on hand in emergency situations, as they are universal donors.

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Having a diverse donor pool ensures that patients of all backgrounds can have the safest and most optimal outcomes when they receive transfusions. In addition, it means more individuals will donate, meaning more units on hand in case of emergencies. A surplus of locally collected blood is critical in emergencies and to support areas without the population density necessary for a local blood donation center.”

 

MD Newsline:

How are you working to successfully reach and recruit young, diverse, and local blood donors? 

 

Aviva Klein:

“We are successful as UBI is made up of the individuals we are trying to recruit. We are 83% people of color and 14% LGBTQ+. In addition, we work with local partners, people who are members of the community who know what works best in the local context.

UBI also strongly believes in participating in advocacy work, such as addressing racism within the history of blood donation and the men who have sex with men deferral. In engaging with such topics, we are saying, ‘hey, we want to make this process fairer to you. While we need your immediate help saving lives, we are also working for a more equitable world.’ Our chapters support these aspirations and are not afraid to tell the hard truth about the current state of the industry.”

 

MD Newsline:

What are the greatest challenges that the University Blood Initiative faces in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

 

Aviva Klein:

“We launched the University Blood Initiative early as a direct response to COVID-19. I had originally planned to do so in March 2021, but given the massive shortages, my team and I felt we had to act sooner. We have been working very hard with all of our partner centers to meet the needs of immediate shortages with great success! We increased blood donation by 23% in under two weeks at a center in upstate New York and 230% at the University of Chicago Medicine.

We were also contacted by Operation Warp Speed to help with encouraging convalescent plasma donation. Through them, I met with others and led the formation of Push 4 Plasma with the American Association of Blood Banks, several centers, the COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, Survivor Corps, the Association of Donor Recruitment Professionals, and several others.

The biggest conventional challenge has been that our students are attending classes virtually. But overall, I think that change has been a strength as students have had a bit more time and have been forced to be creative! Our team and our supporters are savvy enough to get results no matter what.

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I would say our biggest real challenge has been resources. We have been critical in so many ways, which has stretched us thin. We have been operating on a tight budget, which has limited our capacity to grow.”

 

MD Newsline:

How can interested blood donors connect with the University Blood Initiative? 

 

Aviva Klein:

“You can email us at inquiries@universitybloodinitiative.org, sign up for our newsletter and visit our website to educate yourself on basic facts, previous work, our current chapters, and donate. You can also contact us through our social media handles: FacebookLinkedInTwitter, and Instagram

Whether you want to start a chapter, join the national team, donate, or simply stay in the loop, we appreciate any and all help. It’s because of people just like you reading this article that we are able to make a huge impact within local communities across the country.” 

 

MD Newsline:

How might the healthcare professions better support blood donation initiatives such as the University Blood Initiative? 

 

Aviva Klein:

“I think the biggest thing is to engage on the local level. Partner on educational events, work with students or community organizers on drives, and help promote the issue on a larger platform. We are always looking for new partners to engage with and further spread our message, both at the national and chapter levels. By uniting in one voice, we can ensure higher quality care for all patients. It’s so simple.”

 

MD Newsline:

Can you speak to how racism and inequity have impacted blood donation and blood transfusion in communities of color? 

 

Aviva Klein:

“Unfortunately, very few people of color donate blood, which is understandable given the history of racism within the medical establishment as a whole and transfusion medicine in particular. However, as I alluded to earlier, antigen matching is critical for certain patients, and matches are more likely to be found within the same racial group. As such, these patients have a harder time receiving the life-saving transfusions they need.

In addition, there are regions of the country called blood deserts in which there are no nearby blood donation centers. Hospitals in these areas have a harder time maintaining a stable supply of blood, especially in emergencies. Communities of color are also more likely to be located in these areas and, therefore, more likely to be devastated by shortages. The only way to keep such communities healthy is to empower them to take charge of their blood supply.”

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MD Newsline:

Do you think the disparities in blood donation and blood transfusion have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

 

Aviva Klein:

“Oh, most definitely. Even for wealthy areas, blood shortages are causing surgeries to be pushed back even a year later. In addition, the supply of rarer donations, such as platelets or special antigen products, is at an all-time low. However, the need for these products remains constant. As shortages grow, marginalized groups will suffer disproportionately.

The pandemic killed off thousands of blood drives. Initially, people were coming into clinics but became frustrated with the wait times, which discouraged many people who were confused about if the need was so bad, why were there no appointments? In addition, COVID-19 fatigue and the constant message on blood donation have left people a bit numb, and other matters have taken precedence over the issue.”

 

MD Newsline:

How is the University Blood Initiative working to help rectify disparities and advance equity in blood donation and blood transfusion? 

 

Aviva Klein:

“As I previously mentioned, in addition to educating about the importance of repeat donations among young and diverse groups, we are engaging in advocacy work, such as addressing racism within the history of blood donation and the men who have sex with men (MSM) deferral.

We recorded a webinar on racism in blood donation, which will come out in the fall along with one on sickle cell disease. In addition, our most recent event with GMHC (formerly known as Gay Men’s Health Crisis), Act up and Collage, was our art advocacy challenge which focused on the MSM deferral. Soon, we hope to unite our chapters in a mass coordinated action to raise greater awareness on such issues.”

 

MD Newsline:

How might we educate and engage younger generations to help end blood shortages? 

 

Aviva Klein:

“It’s simple. We have to get on their level, be honest and straightforward, and tell them how it is. That is all there is to it. It’s not that people don’t care. They don’t know. If you are listening and anything I have said touched you, direct people to our website, let them learn about the basic facts and why it matters. Engage others in discussions. By talking about it, we ensure maintained visibility and, eventually, change.”

 

To help financially support the University Blood Initiative, please consider making a monetary donation. Thank you. 

 

Responses have been condensed and lightly edited.

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