That cute but corny aphorism came to mind as my friend Mr Shiraz misinterpreted my recent trip to Brisbane as a blood donor emergency. He wanted to know why we were braving extreme weather and I texted (flippantly) “Appointment with Dracula.”
What I meant was we had tickets to Dracula, a production by Queensland Ballet. Dracula aside (one of that company’s best IMHO), you may have noticed there is a bit of a blood donor drive happening in Australia.
The Australian Red Cross (Lifeblood) and individual State health departments are assisting in the drive to replenish blood stocks, as demand reaches a 10-year high. As a recent Facebook post by Queensland Health noted, the shortage is of the greatest importance when it comes to rare blood groups. The post encouraged people with A negative blood to “roll up their sleeves and give generously”.
Such exhortations make my skin crawl, bringing back memories of a daily blood test over a lengthy stay in hospital. My blood group is not that rare, and, despite my life being saved by a blood transfusion in 1969, I have never donated my blood to anyone. Dad, on the other hand, had such rare blood he was on a list to donate in an emergency.
It didn’t happen often, but he would at times get a call (typically at 2.30am): “Mr Wilson, we’re sending a taxi…”
Lifeblood, the donor agency of Red Cross, is on a mission to replenish its blood supplies. It appears that through the pandemic, blood donor numbers had dropped off.
As lockdowns lift in Victoria, New South Wales and ACT, elective surgeries will start again and meanwhile we are just weeks away from holidaymakers taking to the roads, with the inevitable spate of accidents.
The impact of Covid-19 has been felt among blood agencies around the world. A study published by the US Library of Medicine noted the rise of concerns, confusion, and misleading rumours with regards to blood donation during the pandemic period.
“Additionally, due to the government’s interventions such as home sheltering, mass lockdown, and curtailment strategies towards public gatherings amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the arrangement of the voluntary blood donation drives has been debarred. Likewise, there has been a general reluctance of the public to come to the blood centres to donate blood.”
Lifeblood Executive Director of Donor Services Cath Stone said half of all blood donation appointments in Australia were not being attended, while hospital demand was at its highest point in a decade.
“Our donors have shown us incredible support over the last two years; however, as life moves to COVID-normal, it’s important that people continue to donate to help ensure hospitals can continue to treat patients.”
Lifeblood’s reserves of O Negative blood are being challenged, with the number of O Negative donors falling during the pandemic, despite increased hospital demand. O Negative is a universal blood type and can be given to anyone in an emergency.
“Only 9% of Australians have O Negative blood, but it makes up 16% of orders from hospitals because it saves lives in emergencies.”
While Australians are being persuaded to donate, here’s the status of blood supplies around the world.
It is comforting to learn that 97.5% of the global population is covered by organised collecting. Almost 120 million units of blood are donated every year, but as the World Health Organisation data shows, donation rates differ wildly. Some high-income countries see seven times more donations than in low-income countries.
If you have ever been involved in a motor vehicle accident, a brawl or a workplace mishap, you will know that sometimes victims lose too much blood. Transfusions are needed for health conditions including anaemia, complications during pregnancy and childbirth, severe trauma (accidents) and surgical procedures and transplants. Transfusions are also used regularly for patients with conditions such as sickle cell disease.
The WHO and Lifeblood are vigilant about screening donations for HIV and Hepatitis A B and C, to name a few diseases.
A survey in 2018 found that 72 % of countries had a national blood policy. Overall, 64% of reporting countries, or 110 out of 171, have specific legislation covering the safety and quality of blood transfusion. National blood policies are most prevalent in high and moderate-income countries.
There are great variations between countries in terms of age distribution of transfused patients. For example, in high-income countries, the over-60 transfused patient group accounts for up to 75% of all transfusions. In low-income countries, up to 54% of transfusions are for children under the age of 5 years.
In high income countries, transfusion is most often used for supportive care in cardiovascular surgery, transplant surgery, massive trauma, and cancer therapy. In low and middle income countries, it is used more often to manage pregnancy-related complications and severe childhood anaemia.
The WHO has been campaigning to persuade countries which allow blood donors to be paid to switch to a voluntary system. In countries including the US, Austria, Germany and some Canadian provinces, individuals can earn about $50 a time for donating blood. The collecting and warehousing of plasma has become a multi-million dollar business. The main commercial advantage is that plasma can be frozen and kept for up to a year.
Blood is usually separated into three major components: Red blood, plasma and platelets. Red blood has a life span of 42 days and is used for emergency transfusions. Plasma is the colourless liquid separated from blood. It is most often used to treat burn victims and those with bleeding disorders. The main function of platelets is to stick to the blood linings and prevent bleeding. Platelets have a shelf life of five days and are most often used for organ transplants and surgeries.
Musician Mal Webb has been a blood donor for “at least two decades”.
“I recently switched to donating platelets, which means I can do it more often.”
Sometimes even when you want to donate blood, the tight regulations around blood quality can rule you out, as a friend who used to give blood found out.
“Unfortunately, they changed the rules some years ago so if you had been in England for any length of time you might have Mad Cow disease and so couldn’t donate.
“I was disappointed as I felt good giving blood, knowing I was helping other people.”*
There are examples of physicians experimenting with blood transfusion on animals as far back as 1668. The current system can be traced back to the early 19th century, In 1918, British obstetrician Dr. James Blundell performed the first successful transfusion of human blood to treat postpartum haemorrhage.
Lifeblood and State health departments face an uphill battle trying to convince Aussies to give blood. Although one in three Australians will need a blood donation in their lifetime, only one in 30 give blood every year. It seems it was always thus, though. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald in September 1949 spoke of a ‘blood donor crisis’. The article quoted a NSW Red Cross spokesman.
“Our most urgent need is to make members of the public realise that their blood is worth bottling,” the spokesman said, hijacking a WWI term more often used as the ultimate compliment on a job well done.
If you haven’t donated blood for a while or had never even considered it, here’s a handy link: https://www.lifeblood.com.au/blood
Tell them FOMM sent you.
*People who lived in the UK for more than six months between 1980 and 1996 are ineligible to give blood due to Mad Cow disease.