Slovak plasma donors crossing border to Austria

A number of Austrian medical companies are trying to solve a shortage of blood plasma - that's the yellowish liquid in which blood cells are suspended - in their country by bringing in donors from across the border in Slovakia. Not surprisingly, the scheme - under which Slovak donors receive money for making the trip - is proving controversial.

A huge banner hung from the balcony of a local store in the Austrian town of Hainburg invites donors to save lives by giving their plasma away. The text is written in both German and Slovak and apart from appealing to the humanitarian purpose of any donation, it mentions that donors will also receive 18 euro as a travel allowance. Hainburg is located less than 10 km from Bratislava and many Slovaks go there to do their shopping or pass by on their way to Vienna. This somehow strategic location has become very attractive for plasma donation centres. Lothar Baumgartner the Head Doctor of one of them explains why his company decided to appeal to Slovak donors:

"There is a shortage of plasma in Austria and in the whole of the European Union so Slovakia and Austria as neighbouring countries should help each other. We do not steal Slovak donors. In fact we have a similar centre for Czechs near the Austrian-Czech border. As far as I know in Slovakia you can't donate only plasma but the whole blood which is separated by components afterwards. A person can donate blood a maximum of 4 times per year but plasma can be donated up to 50 times. Many useful products are made from plasma that can save lives in both Austria and Slovakia. I want to make it very clear that we do not pay the Slovak donors for their plasma but for their transport costs to and from the centre".

The Austrian law allows a payment for up to 25 euro per plasma donation as a travel allowance. The Slovak law stipulates that blood donors because indeed blood is collected as a whole, receive a sandwich and meal vouchers worth 1.5 euro. The difference between the two countries seems to have persuaded many Slovaks to visit the Austrian donation centres. Lothar Baumgartner:

"The centre in Hainburg opened at the beginning of September and the last time I was there we had registered 15 donors from Slovakia for that single day".

Part of the collected plasma goes to pharmaceutical companies, the rest to Austrian hospitals. Two of the world's largest producers of therapeutic proteins derived from plasma have production facilities in Austria.

In Slovakia visitors to local internet chat rooms were the first to get interested in the Austrian plasma donation centres. The number of those asking for contacts for these centres is not negligible at all. Especially when many of them state openly that money is their motivation. One of them, who wants to stay anonymous explains:

"Ok, it's nice to say that you donate blood to save somebody's life but in reality nothing is for free in this world. I give my blood for free but those products made from it are not free. I need to pay for my health insurance if I want to have access to medical treatment so in the end my blood may not save anybody's life if that person cannot afford the cost of the medical treatment", concluded the anonymous internet chatter

The Slovak press spent the summer debating the so called shortage of blood donors in Slovakia. In Augusts when the number of donors registered by the National Transfusion Centre dropped by half, some regional hospitals launched their own blood drives often sending an ambulance to towns' main squares. Sona Sladecekova from the Slovak Red Cross says, however, that the situation has since stabilized:

"We are faced with such a situation from time to time, especially in the holiday season when many donors are away. Last year, however, only the Red Cross registered more than 32,000 new donors. It's a very good figure. Now, my personal opinion is that everybody is free to go and donate wherever they want to, here or in Austria. What is important to me, is for them to be unpaid donations because you never know when those donors might be in need of a blood transfusion".

As for the Slovak National Transfusion Centre, its representatives say they do not think that the Austrian plasma donation centres are a threat to the Slovak blood banks.