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Though 62% of the population is eligible to give blood, only 3% of them do. Everyone knows patients depend on blood for treatment and recovery, so it’s a mystery why more people don’t donate.

As a regular blood donor, you know how important you are to Vitalant’s lifesaving mission. You’re among the 3% of the eligible population who donate — even though about 62% of the U.S. population is eligible at any one time. Have you ever wondered why this is? Just for fun, let’s investigate this enigma together.

One reason may stem from a psychological phenomenon known as diffusion of responsibility. Take, for a moment, an example of what is sometimes called the bystander effect. You’ve spent the afternoon in town with a good friend, shopping, sightseeing and out to lunch at a cozy outdoor café. On your way back, the two of you cut through a bustling plaza to get back to the car, when suddenly, a loud commotion erupts. Nudging your way to the front, you discover a passerby — a complete stranger — has collapsed, seemingly unable to move.

You and your buddy exchange worried glances, but neither of you move to action. In fact, no one else does either. Just as passing shoppers and sightseers assume somebody will help the victim in the plaza, potential donors may assume other people will always give blood, especially when patients desperately need it. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. Blood centers nationwide typically run into blood shortages at various times throughout the year, making donors absolutely integral to helping patients.

So is the reason for not donating psychological? Let’s take a closer look at the amygdala, the part of your brain believed to govern fear response. Why are some people afraid to donate blood? You can thank trypanophobia for that — the intense fear of needles that affects an estimated 25% of adults. As you know, you’ll barely feel anything when you donate blood; for most people, it’s more painful to stub your toe or bite your tongue.

Yet another explanation lends itself to the small number of blood donors: longstanding myths and misinformation pervading the industry. Before you became a blood donor, did any of the following questions ever discourage you from donating?

  • Is donating blood safe?
  • Can people with tattoos donate blood?
  • Does blood donation make you weaker?
  • Is there enough blood in my body to donate?
  • Do travel and medication prevent you from donating?
  • Can you catch a disease from donating?

There’s a safe bet you answered yes to at least one of the above, and that’s to be expected. Separating fact from fiction can change everything for patients, because the more educated new donors are about the process, the more likely they are to become regular donors and help offset the constant need for blood — everyday heroes just like you.

In the last few years, the number of people donating blood has dropped about 20%. Without new people coming in to give blood and current blood donors giving less often, patients could be at risk if blood isn’t available when they need it.

Often, the reason people don’t donate blood is basic: They’ve never been asked. We can all help by spreading the word about how easy and important it is to donate blood and help hospital patients. Making that personal ask — of friends, family and even coworkers — can make all the difference for cancer patients, trauma survivors and so many others.

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Article published for the Vital Donor newsletter.