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Looming plasma shortage has some worried about treatment

Posted at 10:59 AM, Nov 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-17 13:59:27-05

The pandemic has raised awareness about convalescent plasma donation to treat coronavirus patients. But for hundreds of thousands of people who rely on regular plasma infusions to survive, a looming shortage is raising alarm bells.

Mother, wife and rare disease advocate Deborah Vick lives with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder that disrupts nerve to muscle communication.

“The messages are no longer being able to reach the muscles to make them work--whether that is to walk or move or swallow or breathe--it's all interconnected,” described Vick.

There is no cure, so every two weeks, she requires plasma infusions.

“Being in crisis is the worst time to have to wait for treatment,” she explained. “I know, for me, my treatments are every two weeks and days before my treatment starts, my breathing is extremely labored.”

Many types of primary immunodeficiency disorders like Vick’s result in an inability to produce antibodies or immunoglobulin to fight off infection.

“There's about 250,000 of us in the United States alone,” said John Boyle, president and CEO of the Immune Deficiency Foundation.

Canceled drives and fear of COVID-19 exposure, he says, have contributed to a drop in plasma donations for non-COVID therapy.

This comes as the Red Cross says hospital distributions of convalescent plasma have increased 250 percent in November compared to September.

“To not meet the rising demand is one thing, but to actually have less plasma is potentially very, very, very problematic,” said Boyle.

Experts say it takes seven to 12 months to turn around plasma for patient infusion therapies. We are now nine months into the pandemic and a crisis say some could be around the corner.

“There is a growing concern about the ability to meet patient clinical need,” said Amy Enfantis, president and CEO of the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association.

She says while the call for convalescent plasma therapies for COVID-19 has raised awareness, there is still an increased need for other rare-disease patients.

“Our companies are making therapies every day for patients who have a perpetual need for plasma,” said Enfantis. “And that is ongoing regardless of a pandemic.”

For those who rely on plasma donation and infusion treatment like Vick, it could mean the difference between life and death.

“The biggest fear is not having the treatments that keep me alive. I mean, reality is I don't know what kind of life I will have, if any, how it will function without my infusions.”

It’s why so many are hoping those who can, will give.