Space & Innovation

Blood Donor Rumors Circulate After Tragedy

As people lined up to donate blood after the shooting, word spread that gay people couldn't donate. It wasn't true.

When it comes to national tragedies, the earliest news reports and social media messages are typically the least reliable, with proven fact mixing freely with speculation and rumor. The public wants to know what happened right away, but there is a gap and time lag between investigation and credible reporting; that lack of information (along with fear and uncertainty) creates a vacuum often filled by myths and misinformation.

Rumors often circulate widely in the wake of health scares and national tragedies. In 2014, for example, rumors spread on social media claiming that salt water could cure or prevent Ebola, causing illness and deaths in West Africa.

Misinformation about the Orlando shooting is rampant, and many uncertainties remain about everything from the shooter's motivation to the type of weapon he used. This confusion is inevitable in any complex news story-and especially in a tragedy of this magnitude.

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In the hours and days after the shooting, rumors shared in the news and social media expressed outrage and exasperation that gays were being prevented from donating badly-needed blood for the victims. Actress Mia Farrow, for example, tweeted "Straight people please donate blood for the wounded because Orlando won't accept gay people's blood," and Bobby Blanchard of the "Dallas Morning News" wrote, "Orlando Hospitals need blood donations to help save gay people. Yet gay people can't give blood to help their own. Because they're gay."

These tweets and similar messages-shared widely on social media-were (however surely well intended) incorrect in two important ways.

First, technically there is no national ban on blood donations from gay men and women. There are restrictions, which as the "Des Moines Register" noted, were "borne out of fears of HIV/AIDS transmission, [and] are a nationwide rule and not a flat-out ban.... It's not forbidden for gay men to donate blood, but there are restrictions."

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Those restrictions include a 12-month wait after last sexual contact, which also applies to heterosexual men and women who have sex with HIV-positive partners of the opposite sex (or men with any commercial sex worker). Whether those FDA rules are medically necessary or overly restrictive is open to debate, but the fact is that homosexuals have been able to donate blood since 2015.

Adding to the confusion, information on social media soon circulated suggesting that the FDA's restrictions had in fact been lifted (presumably in response to the dire need for blood for victims of the Orlando attack). This, too, was debunked hours later when a tweet corrected the misinformation: "All FDA guidelines remain in effect for blood donation. There are false reports circulating that FDA rules were being lifted. Not true." In other words the restrictions (not ban) on gay blood donations remained.

This leads to a second piece of misinformation about blood donation. There would be no reason for the FDA to alter its rules since there was in fact no shortage of blood on hand for victims of the Orlando attack. Orlando Health sent out a tweet at 8:49 AM on June 12 that "While we are prepared with enough blood stock, we always appreciate donations," and few minutes later notifying the public that "We brought in six trauma surgeons immediately this morning, & received plenty of units of blood from our local blood banks to prepare."

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Blood donations are always welcome, and health officials are understandably reluctant to issue a statement explicitly asking people not to donate blood. But since there was plenty of blood on hand at Orlando area hospitals, it was clear that additional blood was not needed for victims of that attack-regardless of the sexual orientation of the potential donor.

Part of the reason blood wasn't needed is that more and more hospitals are specifically preparing to treat large numbers of wounded patients. While 50 victims at one time seems like a shockingly high number, hospitals typically have enough blood on hand to adequately respond to far more patients than that. A serious public transit crash might bring dozens of badly injured patients to an emergency room at one time; for example about 200 people were hospitalized after a Washington-to-New York Amtrak train derailed on May 12, 2015.

The outpouring of support and desire to help is of course natural and encouraging. When tragedies strike it's often difficult for the public to directly help the victims; that role is typically filled by police, medics, and first responders.

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A similar issue emerged in the days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when people generously donated blood for the victims. However none of the blood helped victims of the attacks. This is because only five people were pulled alive from the World Trade Center rubble. The Washington Post reported that the American Red Cross collected hundreds of thousands of blood donations, knowing that the blood could not be used for the victims of the attacks.

There was easily enough on hand at any local hospital to cover the victims. In the first hours of chaos it was unclear how much blood would be needed of course, but within a few days it was evident that they had more blood than could be used. And because donated blood has a short shelf life, too much blood donated at one time is likely to be thrown away.

Even though most of the blood donations in these cases was unnecessary, it might help the donors more than the victims. Researchers have found that people who employed "active coping strategies" following these tragedies (such as giving blood or attending memorial services) had lower stress levels than those who didn't. In the wake of this latest attack, anything that relieves stress can only be a good thing.