Health facilities are facing an unprecedented blood shortage and may start running out in some areas as early as this week, according to the health ministry.

The crisis prompted Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hidehisa Otsuji to take to the streets of Tokyo on Saturday to urge people to give blood.

“We want teenagers and those in their 20s to donate blood,” Otsuji appealed to passersby in Shinjuku.

Blood supplies thin out in March and April each year because student donors are away for spring break and office workers are busy closing their books for the fiscal year at the end of March, according to Nobuo Watanabe, an official at the Japanese Red Cross Society’s blood center.

The amount of overall blood available has also dropped in recent years due to the declining birthrate, Watanabe said.

The government’s recent proposal to tighten controls on donations from people who have traveled to Britain may also be having an effect. The measure was devised to lower the risk of blood recipients contracting the human variant of the mad cow disease.

“This is the first time we have faced such a crisis,” Watanabe said. Supplies “have been edging down since January, and we could face the worst situation (this week) where we will not be able to supply blood to medical institutions.”

As of Friday, the stock of red blood cells — a gauge of blood supply — stood at 74 percent of normal — defined as the level sufficient for meeting demand for a period of three days, the Red Cross said.

In Tokyo, where many people travel overseas, an official at a blood center expressed concern that people may be withholding donations even though they are not subject to the ban.

“People could be refraining from giving blood just because they visited Britain and France even though they are not subject to the stricter restriction planned by the government,” the official said.

The health ministry is planning to ban people who stayed in Britain for a day or more between 1980 and 1996 from donating blood in Japan, possibly beginning in May.

Last month, the ministry concluded that the first Japanese patient to die from the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is contracted by eating the meat of cows infected with the mad cow disease, was likely to have been exposed during a stay in Britain in 1990.

The man also stayed in France for three days at around the same time that France was hit by an outbreak of mad cow disease.

People who stayed in Britain or France for at least six months since 1980 have already been banned from giving blood, according to the Red Cross. The ban was tightened on Feb. 28 to cover those who were in Britain for at least one month. The restrictions on people who traveled to France have remained unchanged.

The ministry said earlier that the tighter restriction might take effect in May. But a ministry official said it would re-examine the plan, keeping “an eye on the blood stock.”

The health ministry earlier estimated that the new ban would reduce donations by about 3.6 percent. The government initially planned to tighten the restriction to include people with a history of travel to France as well, but gave up due to the prospect of worsening the shortage.

Supply in the Tokyo “block” was a particularly low 64 percent as of Friday. Anything below 70 percent indicates supplies may run out during major disasters or other high-demand crises.

The Miyagi block, which encompasses six northeastern prefectures, was even lower at 57 percent. The Red Cross blood center in Sendai said supplies of type A blood have dropped to 34 percent and could fall below 30 percent this week.

Nationally, type O is in particularly short supply at 66 percent, and type A at 71 percent, according to the Red Cross.

The health ministry plans to convene an emergency meeting of local government officials on Monday to discuss the crisis.

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