Good news for blood supply: Those with tattoos needn't wait to donate


It's been less than a year since microbiology and cell science major Shanan Ahmad, 19, last received a tattoo, but that no longer restricted her from donating blood.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, April 8, 2013 at 9:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 8, 2013 at 9:05 p.m.

People who get tattoos no longer have to wait a year to donate blood in Florida, according to new rules from LifeSouth, a blood supplier for hospitals in Florida, Alabama and Georgia.

The lift on the one-year deferral came a year and a half after Florida tightened inspection and licensing of its tattoo parlors, said Galen Unold, director of recruitment and retention at LifeSouth.

"There's been an improvement in quality control and safety and sterilization ... and tattoos are becoming more mainstream, and that's what's led to the big change," Unold said.

The lift on the deferral is expected to increase the availability of blood in the community, he said.

"How many units is it gonna mean? How many lives is this going to touch? We don't really have information that quantifies that," Unold said. "I think it will probably impact the whole community."

LifeSouth on average has a three-day blood supply ready for hospitals in need - in addition to what hospitals themselves have, Unold said. That corresponds to the supply overall in the U.S., which averages a 3-7-day blood supply.

"If this can increase our blood supply by a single day, that's a huge impact," Unold said.

Changes for tattoo parlors

According to Anthony Dennis, environmental health director at the Alachua County Health Department, who has been doing the inspections at local tattoo parlors, Florida came late to tightened regulations compared to other states. These regulations mostly regard using sterilized, single needles and certain antiseptic techniques, Dennis said.

Also, under the old regulations, physicians were charged with inspecting the parlors once a year, and now that job has fallen to the department of health, which provides a course on blood-borne pathogens that all tattoo artists must take. All artists in a parlor must be licensed now, too.

"One of the bigger things about this legislation is that nowhere does it permit you to do it out of your home," Dennis said. "We had gotten complaints - from tattoo facilities mostly - about someone tattooing out of their house, apartment or hotel. This legislation helps weed out those people."

Currently there are 10 licensed tattoos parlors in Gainesville, Dennis said, and seven more in surrounding counties.

For Wayne Lessard, owner of BodyTech tattoo parlor in downtown Gainesville, however, that's not necessarily the case.

"I still believe buyer beware. Just because I tell you that you have to use a new needle every time doesn't necessarily mean a person's going to do that," said Lessard, who has owned his shop for 15 years and has been tattooing professionally for 31. "We treat everyone like they are HIV- or hepatitis-positive to protect ourselves and our equipment. But I know there are people who cut corners."

"I think they should still wait or test (blood) before giving it to someone else. There are too many variables," Lessard continued.

And in fact, all donated blood is still screened for blood-borne pathogens, Dennis added.

"Even in the worst-case scenario, if you were to get infected from a tattoo and you were positive, they are still gonna screen the blood for that. The DOH still considers a tattoo a risk factor for a blood-borne disease."

Most of the concern has centered on Hepatitis B and C and HIV: Blood carrying those infections can be passed on through needle sharing, Dennis said. However, the risk of infection is still very low, since the needle grazes the skin when you get a tattoo, rather than boring into it, as the needle does with body piercing.

Eager to donate blood

For Kaitlin Self, a University of Florida junior and "two galloner" - meaning she's already donated two gallons of blood - news of the new rule was heartening.

"I've heard so many people say they can't donate because they have a tattoo or piercing," said Self, who herself has a tattoo, as do most of the people she knows, she said.

"I want to make sure people know they can now," Self said.

After seeing last week's LifeSouth news release announcing the lifted deferral posted on Facebook, Self decided to co-organize a blood drive through LifeSouth at her residence at Gainesville's 2nd Avenue Center on Monday.

A half hour into the blood drive, five people - all UF students - had donated blood.

A fluorescent orange sign lured people to donate with good karma and free cookies. But the primary advertisement was that your one-pint donation can potentially save three lives.

And learning about how your blood could be used is fascinating, Self said. She recalled as a teenager seeing a sign about the situations in which donor blood could help save lives, such as blood transfusions for people who have been in car accidents.

"It's cool to know where blood is going and (where it) comes from," said Self, who made her first donation at age 16.

LifeSouth collects about 600 units, or pints, of blood each week in the Gainesville area, from the trademark red, white and blue buses that go to rotating locations each day, Unold said.

"We are in critical need of all blood types, especially O," Unold said.

He added that there are still a lot of restrictions about who can donate blood, but because of improved knowledge of how various medications affect the blood, "there are a lot more reasons that you can donate now than you can't," he said.

People with diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol can donate, while those taking blood thinners can't, he said.

Also, members of the military and expatriates tend to face restrictions, depending on where they've lived. Those who have lived in most European countries anytime since 1980 for five years can't donate because of the risk of Mad Cow Disease, a fatal brain disease that in humans is called Creutzfield-Jacob Disease. It can be transmitted through blood transfusions.

People who have spent time in countries where malaria is present also have to wait 12 months to donate blood.

But those restrictions still leave the door wide open for just about everyone else. Starting at age 16, you can donate with a parent's permission, and you can never be too old, Unold said.

To find out where the LifeSouth bus will be so you can donate blood, call 334-1000.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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