In the Red! Give Blood, Get Career Advice

Blood banks give creative economic incentives to encourage donation.

Feb. 21, 2009— -- Desperate times call for desperate measures. Since the economy began to crater, Americans have looked inward to their very bodily fluids for a boost, selling blood, semen, even their ovaries and hair for a few extra dollars.

Companies that buy and sell blood have spotted an uptick in blood donations and created marketing campaigns that encourage people to give blood in exchange for help beyond just some extra cash.

A blood bank in California is catering to those hit hardest by the economic crunch, offering career counseling to that state's thousands of unemployed individuals in exchange for a pint of blood.

Thirty people from around Silicon Valley Thursday who gave blood through Stanford University's Stanford Blood Center also received advice on their resumes and brushed up on their interviewing skills.

"With increasing layoffs in Silicon Valley and an uncertain future for job growth, this event is an opportunity for those who have lost their jobs to get back into the market while also doing something positive for the community," said John Williams, the center's marketing manager in a statement.

Some 7.2 percent of all Americans are currently unemployed. In California, that number is 9.3 percent, the third highest rate in the country.

"It was definitely like: Give blood, get your resume critiqued. Yeah, I can make that drive. That works for me," Steve Koehler, an out-of-work accountant from San Jose told affiliate KABC at the Stanford blood drive.

The California blood bank's marketing ploy is the most recent in a series of efforts that have been devised over the past year amid yo-yoing gas prices and the plummeting stock market to capitalize on people's willingness to donate body parts -- or fluids -- to pad their wallets.

Blood for Oil

Over the, summer when gas prices hit a record high, a blood bank in Las Cruces, N.M., hung a banner outside the office that advertised its offer rather plainly: "Donate plasma for gas money."

"There has definitely been an increase in the number of donors we are seeing," Debbie Sharp, the Las Cruces center's director, told last summer after the offer was launched. "We're seeing anywhere from 50 to 100 more donations per week."

Sharp said donors were not stereotypical drug addicts looking for some quick cash, but represented a broad cross-section of society.

"All walks of people come in to donate," she said. "We have teachers, students, people who work for the city. We're definitely seeing a change in who is walking through the door, but they're all saying the same thing. They all say they need a little extra cash to pay for gas."

Once donated, plasma -- the main component of blood that contains proteins, minerals and hormones -- is used by pharmaceutical companies to create potentially life-saving drugs. In Las Cruces, donors are paid $20 for their first visit and up to $35 dollars for their second. Overweight donors are paid an additional $5 there because the process can take longer for them, Sharp said.

Economic Eggs in One Basket

Donations of hair and sperm are also on the rise. But while a sperm offering can return up to $200 and a yard of hair up to $2,000, they pay relatively poorly compared to young women who donate their ovaries for money -- an exchange that can pay up to $10,000 or more.

Though specific statistics for recent years are not yet available, fertility experts across the country have anecdotally reported an increase in egg donor applications.

In Chicago, Robin von Halle, president of Alternative Reproductive Resources, an agency that pairs egg donors with infertile couples, said several of the clinics in the area have reported an increase in women looking to donate.

"In my 16 years in this field, I've noticed a trend that when the economy or unemployment rate starts slipping, we start receiving way more calls. Lately, we've been very busy -- much more than usual," she said.

"The calls and Internet inquiries right now are astronomical. We're looking for specific donors between 21 and 29 years old, but a lot of these people are pushing that. They call and say, 'Well, I'm only 32.' In 50 phone calls, we might get one suitable donor," she said.

Chicago donors make $7,000 for their first donation and are allowed to donate up to six times.

On average donors make $7,000 to $10,000, with larger sums paid to women in wealthier regions of the country, such as the Northeast.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, a nonprofit trade organization that represents reproductive health clinics and doctors, said it would be another two years before there was enough data to verify anecdotal reports that the economy is affecting donation rates.

Donations for Quick Cash

In 2005, the latest year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has data on egg donation, 134,260 women had assisted reproductive procedures. Of those, 16,161 women, or 12 percent, received donated eggs. In 1995, there were 4,783 eggs used in 59,142 procedures, or 8 percent of the total.

"It stands to reason that women looking for a source of extra income would look to egg donation," Nicoll said. "But just because there is increased attention expressed, doesn't mean there are more completed donations. This is not a simple or casual decision. There is first a medical and psychiatric evaluation and then what amounts to outpatient surgery."

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