Mexico's poor sell life-saving plasma in struggle to survive

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EL PASO -- Along the border, blood is big business, in particular plasma.  The protein rich substance that is full of infection-fighting antibodies is bought and sold by pharmaceutical companies for life-saving treatments.

Many plasma centers on the border rely heavily on donors from Mexico like 25-year-old Andres Cano from Ciudad Juarez.

“This is how I support my family,” said Cano.

He’s married and the father of two girls aged 3 and 7 years old.

Cano earns $55 a week selling his plasma twice a week which is the limit. Talecris pays $20 dollars for the first donation and $35 for a second donation if it’s made the same week.

Cano started coming here when he lost his job at a Juarez restaurant. On the day he made his donation the waiting room of the Talecris Plasma Center in El Paso was practically full.

The parent company, Grifols, owns 147 plasma centers in the U.S. and is the industry leader in the multi-billion-dollar plasma business. Thirteen of those centers are located in border cities. El Paso has 4 plasma centers.

The company would not provide regional sales figures, but a spokesperson said the border plasma centers are among the "largest."

Half of all the plasma in the world comes from the U.S. and on its website Grifols says, “All donors undergo a thorough medical examination and their plasma is rigorously tested using FDA-approved methods to ensure it meets stringent qualifications for use in our therapeutic products.”

The donors from Mexico have legal documents to cross the border, but some worry the money they get paid might qualify as work which could be in violation of their visas.

But that fear is overshadowed by need for most according to a young mother from Juarez who was leaving the El Paso plasma center on her way home.

She didn’t want to give her name but said, “A large percentage of those selling their plasma are also from Juarez.”

She said she is unemployed and has been selling her plasma in El Paso for a month to help feed her two children. Some people have been donors for years.

“95 percent of my customers are regulars. They come twice a week to donate, “ said Yvonne Castaneda who parks her food truck outside the plasma center. “If they haven’t eaten breakfast they’ll have something to eat so they don’t get weak inside while they’re donating."

Castaneda sells burritos and cups of corn with  lime and chile with cheese sprinkled on top, which is popular in Mexico.

She tries to help her cash-strapped customers with a donation of her own whenever she can.

“I’m giving out bags of rice and cans," she said. "It’s so bad, I see these people they’re hungry.  I give them corn, cereal, boxes of cereal.” 

 She also donates her family’s old clothes, coats, and sometimes jars of baby food. Every bit helps those who cross the border seeking an economic lifeline by selling their lifesaving plasma.

“It’s a necessity for us but we also know what we’re doing is going to help someone else in need,” said the young mother who did not want to give her name as she walked toward the international bridge and back to Juarez.