By Brenda Owen

Daily Journal

As fire chief for the town of Mooreville, Ron Witte has rescued a lot of people over the years. But even when he’s not on the job, you might say that saving lives is in his blood.

Witte is one of a rare breed of regular donors whose blood is needed to give premature babies a fighting chance at life.

United Blood Services executive director Christopher Coffin said only about two out of 100 people have the combination of O-negative, CMV-negative blood needed for many premature infants, born weighing less than a pound, to survive.

Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a common virus carried by more than half of the population nationwide, Coffin said.

“Most people who have the virus never know it,” he said.

For the average healthy person, CMV does not cause a problem, he said. However, for patients whose immune systems are not functioning properly, Coffin said, CMV can be very serious.

“Exposure to CMV may be especially dangerous for premature babies, cancer patients, and others who cannot fight infection,” he said. “Premature infants have no immune system so they are very susceptible to pulmonary problems, pneumonia and those types of things so exposure to CMV virus increases their complications significantly. And, it’s important that we provide them blood that is CMV-negative.”

Coffin said most people in Northeast Mississippi have already been exposed to CMV and have developed the antibody.

“In the neighborhood of 75 percent of the population are already CMV positive,” he said, a figure 25 percent higher than the national average.

Only about two people out of 100 in Northeast Mississippi are both O-negative and CMV negative blood types, Coffin said.

United Blood Services maintains a list of donors whose blood is CMV negative. When a patient needs CMV negative blood, a CMV negative donor with the patient’s blood type can be called to donate for the patient.

And, even this small number of donors is constantly dwindling since people can change from CMV negative to CMV positive from one visit to the center until the next.

“The conversion rate is about 25 percent,” Coffin said. “We continually lose donors that we’ve had that have been good, faithful donors for years. Then suddenly, they can pop up and be positive. Fortunately, these donors can continue to donate blood for the general population but they are no longer a source for blood for premature babies.”

Another problem with keeping enough of the “baby blood” on hand, Coffin said, is that for optimum results, the blood should be fresh.

“Less than five days old is best,” he said. “The older the blood the more problems there are to contend with due to the breakdown of the red blood cells.”

Potassium and ammonia, two by-products of red blood cell break down, cause particular problems to premature infants, Coffin said, because their kidney filtration system is not fully developed.

In cases of emergency, special filters used to remove white cells from the blood can also remove the CMV virus, but Coffin said blood untainted by the virus is preferable for premature infants.

“It is extremely important that we keep finding new donors for this blood,” Coffin said. “If you have CMV negative blood, you can help. We would like to keep your name in our donor file so we can call you when there is a need for CMV negative blood of your type. Your special blood will make a difference for patients who need it.”

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