In February the South African National Blood Service (SANBS) announced its struggles with critically low blood stocks. The situation hasn’t improved much and the need to save lives remains urgent. Here’s why you should consider donating blood. By Kgomotso Moncho-Maripane
According to the South African National Blood Service (SANBS), less than 1% of South Africans are active blood donors. It’s a concerning statistic given that donation of blood can save a minimum of three lives. This is because blood can be separated into blood cells, plasma and platelets which all have different roles. A unit of blood can be stored for up to 42 days after donation, so it is important for donors to donate regularly.
“There’s no substitute for blood in nature,” says SANBS Communications officer, Khensani Mahlangu. “There’s nothing that can be manufactured that can replace blood. Donated blood is the only hope for people who need blood transfusion and their lives saved.”
“There’s a misconception that the bulk of the blood that we collect goes to trauma patients (i.e., people in car accidents or that have been stabbed). That is not the case. 40% of our blood goes to women in childbirth. Those are people who need most of the blood that is donated by South Africans. Giving blood contributes towards helping women who hemorrhage while giving birth and babies who are born with various types of blood disorders. Your donated blood gives them a second chance at life,” Mahlangu emphasizes.
Blood types and blood roles
All blood is important. However, not all blood groups are compatible with each other. Successful blood transfusion depends on classifying and matching donors and patients correctly.
Donors belong to one of the main eight blood groups: A positive, A negative, B positive, B negative, AB positive, AB negative, O positive, and O negative. The positive or negative assigned to a blood group is known as the Rhesus (Rh) factor. The Rh factor is an inherited protein that can be found on the surface of the red blood cell. If your blood type is positive, this means your blood cells have the Rh protein. If your blood type is negative, your blood cells don’t have the Rh protein. The latter blood typing doesn’t indicate illness and does not affect your health.
Group O blood is the universal blood type because it can be donated to anyone.
“That is the blood we usually call for in numbers because it can help most people. We can use it whole, or we can separate it. But when you are going for plasma and platelet donation, it’s different. The universal donors in that instance would be AB blood group and B blood group,” Mahlangu explains.
The three components of blood have different roles:
Platelets are white blood cells. They’re used to fight infection. People with cancer, or a blood related illness often require platelets. They’re also important in helping the blood to clot. If you have low platelet levels, you also suffer from bruising and bleeding.
Plasma contains proteins, the clotting factor. This is what we treat people with bleeding disorders with. Massive bleeding in an incident also requires plasma which creates a clotting factor in the blood to stop the hemorrhaging.
Mahlangu says, “Red blood cells contain hemoglobin that carries the oxygen throughout the body. That is used to treat people with anemia or blood loss during trauma or surgery.”
The donation process
Firstly, find a donor center in your area. You can find one using the SANBS website or calling on their toll-free number: 0800 119 031.
“We don’t just have fixed donor centres; we also have mobile blood drives. They travel across schools, universities, corporates, malls and churches,” says Mahlangu.
“At the donation center, you fill in a questionnaire that checks your health and wellbeing. Then you go into mini medical – a booth with a nurse where they check your blood pressure and the iron level of your blood. If you pass both of those and the questions that are asked, you can donate.
“You go to a bed where you will be connected to a needle and a bag. About 480ml of your blood will be drawn. Thereafter you’ll eceive something to replenish your blood sugar. After that the nurse will check if you’re healthy or well enough to go home. The process takes about 30 minutes.
“For platelets and plasma donation you get hooked up to machine called Centrifuge. This process takes about 90 minutes. During those 90 minutes, blood is taken from your veins. It goes directly into the centrifuge machine where it pumps to separate the platelets or the plasma that is needed from your blood. The rest of the red blood cells are returned to your body. The recovery period is much shorter: 14 days; whereas the recovery period for whole blood is 56 days.”
Who can and can’t donate?
The main criteria for blood donation are donors between the ages of 16 and 75 who weigh a minimum of 50kg or 55kg if donating plasma or platelets.
“That mini medical is great here, because in that question-and-answer session you get to find out if you’re eligible to donate or not. The questions cover elements of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, Syphilis and Hepatitis. You can’t donate if you have these. Our blood is specifically tested for those diseases because they are transfusable by blood donation,” Mahlangu says.
People who lead a low-risk life can donate. These include people who are not taking drugs by needle and people who aren’t sex workers.
If you’re anemic, or you don’t pass the physical test, you won’t be able to donate. Anemics can only donate if they are the correct weight and the iron levels.
“We will check mothers if they’re breastfeeding or pregnant. In general, women are deferred post-partum for about nine months. Breastfeeding women are advised against donation after the nine-month deferral period because it can compromise the nutritional value of breastmilk,” continues Mahlangu.
Deferrals are temporary waiting periods. They are not indefinite unless you have one of these blood transfusable illnesses. If you have had a piercing in the last two or three months, been to the dentist recently, they will have different deferral periods for different procedures that are on the deferral list.
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