“People don’t tend to be attracted to donating blood, it’s not very cool or sexy. It’s not like having a heart transplant. In fact having a blood transfusion is one of the most common forms of medical intervention that is done throughout the world.” – Rachel Donegan. Transfusion Nurse Specialist, New Zealand Blood Service.
Blood donations are an essential part of our healthcare system, and much of today’s medical care depends on a steady supply of blood from donors.
The New Zealand Blood Service (NZBS) says that only four percent of Kiwis roll up their sleeves and donate, with a quota of 3000 units of blood needed every week.
Rachel Donegan, Transfusion Nurse Specialist for NZBS, says: “Many people know nothing about blood until it actually affects them and their family. What we have to do is try and make people familiar with it.”
She also says a lot of people have a phobia of the procedure itself. One of the ways NZBS combats this is by hosting annual school visits to get people familiar with giving blood and the need for blood donations.
High schools in New Zealand are visited at least once a year and the programs, Donegan says, are very high-tech.
In New Zealand the age of eligibility starts at 16, and young people make great donors as they are likely to not yet have developed risk factors.
About one percent of the population, or 42,000 patients, are treated with blood or blood products in New Zealand each year.
Just one donation can help save the lives of up to three people as blood is separated into several components so it can be used to treat a variety of conditions.
Red blood cells: give blood its hue, are used to treat some types of anaemia and replace blood lost as the result of an accident or surgery.
Platelets: are used to treat problems with bone marrow, such as leukaemia and people with blood clotting disorders like haemophilia.
Plasma: otherwise known as “liquid gold” at the New Zealand Blood Service is used to treat conditions where abnormal clotting causes bleeding, such as liver disease, and where large volumes of blood have been lost.
Each of these components is used to treat different patients. For example, accident and burns victims, patients undergoing surgery, adults and children suffering leukaemia, and transplant patients.
One of the most important components of donated blood is plasma and indications for its usage are increasing all the time.
Donegan explains there is a misunderstanding about the need for blood products, with many believing that those who receive blood have only suffered major traumas such as surgeries or road accidents.
“Many people don’t realise there’s this huge chunk of people who are dependent on it. Young men and women that are born with compromised immune systems that have to come in and have intravenous immunoglobulin and then they go to Uni, have families and lead normal lives,” she says.
The biggest use of blood products is for the treatment of cancer, at 26 percent, and the next biggest being accidents at 19 percent. Blood required for mothers and babies makes up seven percent. People who have been in accidents and suffered massive blood loss may need multiple transfusions of red cell components. Blood is also used to improve the quality of life of people with a terminal illness.
Certain ethnic groups often require specific blood types, so having donations from a range of ethnic groups is a more efficient way of meeting the potential demand for blood and blood products. One of the biggest challenges for the New Zealand Blood Service is gaining Maori and Pasifika donors, especially men.
NZBS has a wide screening process to keep up standards, including screening for every major hepatitis, HIV, HTLV, and others. It’s a process which has been commended as being the most specific in the country.
“We are admired in the rest of the world, even in comparison to what they have in Australia because we have such an integrated system,” she says. “We always know where our blood is coming from because it comes from our donors and we can screen for so much,” she adds.
NZBS considers blood donation a gift and encourages people to donate to make a difference.
“It would be nice to think that if at least one time in their lives everybody would think ‘I want to give someone a gift’. Many of us say when I die you can have my heart, or my kidney, or my eyes. But you can do something now. They can give a gift now. They can give the gift of life,” adds Donegan.
Who can donate blood?
Most people between the ages of 16 and 66 can give blood although you must be in general good health. You can check your eligibility for donating blood here: Am I eligible?
- Blood can only be safely stored for a relatively short time. Red blood cells can only be stored for 35 days and platelets can only be stored for seven days.
- When giving blood, about 470mL of blood will be donated (seven percent – eight percent of the blood volume of an average adult, i.e. approx. 1.5 cans of soft drink), plus 15mL for test samples.
- The body will replace the fluids of the donated blood in just 24 hours. The red blood cells will be replaced in about 6 to 8 weeks. After three months, a person can choose to donate again.
- There are four main blood types A, B, AB and O in the ABO blood group system. When you become a blood donor, you will be advised of your blood group.
- NZ Blood Service is the sole provider of blood products to hospitals in New Zealand.
- There is no substitute for human blood.