What Does Travel Have to Do with Blood Donation? A lot, Apparently

Several years ago, when I got over the fear of needles, on a whim, I donated blood. I’m a liar— I’ve never gotten over my fear of needles. It all started with that New York Blood Center mobile unit parked in front of the movie theater on Court Street in Downtown Brooklyn. I’m unsure of why it suddenly occurred to me to stop, but since then, I’ve donated.

Fast forward to 2017, my employer offered a program where New York Blood Center came on site on a quarterly basis so that staff could donate. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. To sweeten the deal (literally), we were offered unlimited cookies, chips, and juice, and could earn a few hours comp time. I was sold.

Enter Punta Cana

Each time I donated blood, a nurse would have me answer a questionnaire asking about my personal health and habits. Was I an intravenous drug user? Negative. Have I ever tested positive for one of several diseases listed? No, again. What about blood transfusions? Nope. Here was an interesting one: What countries have I visited in the past three years? Maybe we should start with where I haven’t traveled to. You might want to sit down for this one…

“Belgium…Antigua…France. Wait, do we have to do this in alphabetical order?”

Up until this point, I hadn’t really thought much about the implications of this question. I was upfront with my answers, almost amused by how many countries I could list.

“Cuba, uh, Colombia…Panama. Dominican Republic.”

“Hold on…Dominican Republic? What part?,” the nurse asked.

“Well, Santo Domingo, Punta Cana, Puerto…”

“Let me check the list…” (nurse begins anxiously combing through a computerized database)

I’d seen that look before. That look told me that I was about to receive news I didn’t want to hear. What was she possibly looking up and what would she say? I sat awkwardly in my seat.

“So, I’m sorry, but you won’t be able to give blood today, Shannon.”

“What? Why?”

“Dominican Republic is on our list of countries with high risk of malaria.”

“Malaria?! Do I look like I have malaria to you?”

“So, even resort areas of Dominican Republic are on this list. What date did you arrive and leave?” (she looks at a calendar)

“October 10th, maybe? No. Maybe the 12th to the 14th? Columbus Day Weekend.”

“You cannot give blood until… (still trying to calculate something, looking at the calendar) October 14th, 2020.”

“Wait, what?! I’ve been to Dominican Republic four times in the last year and a half and have never heard this. In fact, I gave blood at the last drive here three months ago and this was never mentioned.”

The nurse looks at me sympathetically and apologetically asks if I’d like her to speak to her boss “just to make sure.”

“Yes, please do because I’ve been travelling for over a decade and I’ve never heard of such a thing until now.”

The nurse comes back with supervisor who reiterates what I’ve just been told about not being able to donate blood for nearly a calendar year. I was given a document wit this date on it and left dejected. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who’s experienced this.

More About Malaria Than You Ever Wanted to Know

What was odd is that I’d gone for something like 13 years without ever being rejected from a blood drive. Why? I mean, I lived and traveled in the humid jungles of Colombia, for God’s sake. I even had a Colombian roommate who, as a child, lived in Cartagena, and she and her young brothers actually contracted dengue. Yes, dengue, the mosquito-borne disease. But according to the list NY Blood Center uses, Cartagena isn’t an area known for malaria. But Punta Cana is.

So, wait: you mean to tell me that everybody who heads down south for a wedding, bachelor party, or just some fun in the sun is banned from donating for a full year? Yup. It typically takes one to four weeks, usually more like one to two weeks, to show symptoms. It is possible to contract malaria and not show signs; it can remain dormant in your system for up to a year (which is why they wouldn’t want you to donate blood during this period.)

Where does one acquire malaria? Short answer: pretty much all over the globe wherever there are hot, humid climates. However, not every place is at risk. For example, Guatemala is, yet Costa Rica is not. Dominican Republic apparently is at risk with the exception of Santo Domingo city. However, Cuba, interestingly enough, is not, nor is Jamaica, Cayman Islands, or the Bahamas. Go figure.

Here’s the list of countries that New York Blood Center— probably others –use to determine if you’re at risk of malaria.

I guess you could blame this solely on my ignorance or naïveté. I didn’t do my homework. Well, I’ve since done some research and figured I’d save you the time. Don’t make the same mistake I made. The more you know…