These days, 23-year-old Noun Run often feels weak and dizzy. Selling his blood 10 times during the past year has taken a toll on his body, making him thin and pale.
Although he has stopped selling blood for a few months because he is earning money as a porter in a local market, he said Tuesday he plans to sell his blood again.
“I have no choice,” said Noun Run, who earned 17,000 riel ($4.35) to 30,000 riel ($7.70) per 350 cc of blood, which represents one unit. “I have no money to help my parents in Kampot [province].”
Health officials identify people like Noun Run as one of hundreds of professional blood donors in the country—people who make their living by selling blood.
Oscar Barreneche, a blood safety expert at the World Health Organization, said strong demand and a shortage in blood supply have combined to create a market for professional donors.
The problem is that professional donors are more likely to be poor and infected with viruses such as HIV, syphilis and various types of hepatitis, he said.
“If you have blood recruitment based on money, normally they [donors] will be from the lower classes,“ Barreneche said. “People know you can buy blood, but they don’t know the risk attached to it.”
The way the system is supposed to work is a relative of a person who needs a transfusion donates blood to the National Blood Transfusion Center. In exchange, the family receives blood from the center which already has been screened for HIV, syphilis and Hepatitis B and C.
But the stock of blood is so low that the center doesn’t have enough of a supply to give tested blood to families in need.
The current problem is exacerbated because many times a family member—the most suitable donor for a person in need of a blood transfusion—is unwilling to give blood because of superstitions that donating blood makes people sick, Barreneche said.
Instead, family members often pay a professional donor to give blood for them. Donors can make the most profit by selling blood directly to the families, but some sell blood to middlemen, who then resell the blood for a higher price.
Eighty-nine percent of the blood collected in 1998 came from family members of people who needed blood transfusion, but most of them were probably professional donors who pretended to be family members, said Kheang Bomith, assistant manager of the technical office at the National Blood Transfusion Center.
At the National Blood Transfusion Center and Kantha Bopha Hospital—the two main blood banks in Phnom Penh—5.6 percent of the collected blood in 1998 had HIV, 3.2 percent had Hepatitis C, 9.9 percent showed Hepatitis B and 6.7 percent had syphilis, according to the National Blood Transfusion Center.
Dr Beat Richner, head of Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals, said his hospitals does not accept money for blood donations, but acknowledged that family members could pay someone to donate for blood for them without the hospital knowing.
In addition to the National Blood Transfusion Center and Kantha Bopha, which runs a private blood bank, there are 13 blood banks in the provinces. Nationally, a total of 23,453 units of blood was collected in 1998.
The National Blood Transfusion Center needs about 450 units per month for a sufficient stock of blood, but right now the supply is only about 20 units, Barreneche said.
The center would need 15 donations every day to maintain a sufficient stock. But nationally, there are only two blood donations per 1,000 people, Kheang Bomith said.
To encourage blood donations, the World Health Organization and government officials are planning a publicity campaign to educate and recruit low-risk blood donors, such as students and monks.
“An increase in the stock of blood equals a decrease in professional donors equals good quantity and quality of blood,” Kheang Bomith said.
Meanwhile, Noun Run says the next time he won’t sell blood to doctors, who in turn sold his blood for $40 to family members of people who needed blood transfusions. Instead, he said, he will sell his blood directly to the families, so he can get the higher price.
Noun Run was one of about a dozen professional donors or blood dealers who were hanging out in front of the National Blood Transfusion Center on Tuesday morning. Most of them were too scared to talk to reporters because, they claim, there are gangsters who protect doctors if there are problems with a blood deal.
Ngeth Wath, who was not at the center, said that his friend made $120 selling two units of his blood for $60 each to family members of people who needed transfusions. Now Ngeth Wath plans to sell some of his own blood to help his family in Kandal province, where they have no rice to eat.
“My family is poor in the rainy season,“ he said. “They need the money.“
(Additional reporting by Sokhan Serey Vethia)