A Bloodthirsty World
Updated: Nov 13, 2021
By Krisha Thakker, Westview High School, San Diego, CA
James Harrison may not be a household name, but his actions have saved over 2 million lives. (“Man With The Golden Arm” Donates Blood That Has Saved 2 Million Babies, 2015). How exactly did Harrison save over 2 million lives? He donated blood 1,173 times throughout his life (James Harrison, 2020). Learning about Harrison’s contribution inspired me to hold a blood drive when I was in 5th grade, but my young mind still had many questions about the blood journey from donor to recipient. When I was finally old enough to tour the San Diego Blood Bank, I got a glimpse of that process – and learned just how much of a need there is for increased blood donations and education.
During my tour, we entered a large room that resembled the milk aisle at a grocery store. Tall, spacious refrigerators lined up against the walls, but all were nearly empty. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the empty refrigerators was a major issue. A TV across the hallway illustrated the problem – the blood bank just didn’t have enough supply to meet hospital demands.
Unfortunately, this is a global problem. In a study published in 2019, hematologists showed that 119 of 195 countries didn’t have enough blood to meet their respective demands. Against the demand of 304,711,244 blood product units worldwide, blood banks only had a supply of 272,270,243 units (Roberts et al., 2019). That is 32,441,001 units desperately needed but unavailable, resulting in a potential loss of countless lives due to the shortage of blood units.
The reason behind this is simple: the importance of donating blood is just not fully understood. In fact, in some countries donating blood is frowned upon; factors including illiteracy and superstitions cloud views on blood donation. Worldwide, lack of sustained awareness campaigns also encourages the spread of false information, such as the misconception that donated blood isn’t replaced in the donor’s body or that it can cause HIV, etc. (UCI Health, 2018).
COVID-19 has made the situation worse. Myths about catching COVID-19 at blood banks and becoming infected from blood transfusions run rampant. Add social distancing, and it becomes much harder for blood banks to collect enough blood. Globally, the results are alarming. In Ethiopia, donations fell to just under 30 a day after COVID-19 hit (As World Blood Donor Day Approaches, COVID-19 Strains Supply, 2020). In India, voluntary donation fell by almost 100% (Das, 2020). In Turkey, donations fell by over 75% (World facing blood shortages due to COVID-19 pandemic, 2020). Meanwhile, demand has increased. Patients with cancer, anemia, and hemophilia still need the same amount of blood, while COVID-19 patients need plasma to battle the virus (National coronavirus surge leads to emergency convalescent plasma shortage, 2020). This imbalance puts further strain on the system and creates a risk of losing thousands of lives.
This seems like a problem too big to overcome. How can we encourage thousands of people worldwide to donate blood, even - no especially - during a pandemic? Well, it will require research and data.
Blood banks have traditionally relied on material incentives, but data has shown that this doesn’t actually increase donor participation and may have a negative effect on blood safety. For example, American Red Cross has offered gift cards, paid time-off at work, etc. But donor participation has not significantly increased (Hosseini-Divkalayi et al., 2010). In spite of the incentives, only 3% of eligible adults in the US donate blood (Blood Needs & Blood Supply, 2017).
This is where use of data comes in. Research suggests that leveraging demographic data and tailoring campaigns toward specific populations increases donor participation. For example, in St. Louis, blood banks tried to reach African American donors by partnering with community members to host 34 blood drives at 13 churches. This campaign was extremely successful (Makin et al., 2019). In 2016, the National Health Service used a different tactic to increase donor participation. It launched a social media campaign in the UK targeted to to a certain age range, successfully encouraging 30,000 people to sign up to be new donors who, in turn, also created 27,000 tweets to encourage others to donate (Simpson, 2016). By combining these techniques with ones already practiced, blood banks can increase donor participation by focusing on the benefits and importance of donating blood, eradicating any misinformation, and highlighting safety precautions taken to protect donors from the current COVID-19 pandemic.
But blood banks don’t have to do this alone. Blood donation is social cause, and not just a blood bank charter. We don’t have to be superheroes to save a life. Donating a pint of blood can do just that. And what if some of us don’t qualify? We can still help by organizing blood drives or talking about the importance of donating blood. Efforts from enough of us taking a small initiative can add up and bring a positive change. After all, as Vincent van Gogh said, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
As World Blood Donor Day Approaches, COVID-19 Strains Supply | Voice of America - English. (n.d.). Www.Voanews.Com. Retrieved September 5, 2020, from https://www.voanews.com/covid-19-pandemic/world-blood-donor-day-approaches-covid-19-strains-supply
Blood Needs & Blood Supply. (2017). Redcrossblood.Org. https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/how-to-donate/how-blood-donations-help/blood-needs-blood-supply.html
Das, T. (2020, June 14). On World Blood Donor Day, a look at India’s blood crisis that’s compounded by Covid. ThePrint. https://theprint.in/features/on-world-blood-donor-day-a-look-at-indias-blood-crisis-thats-compounded-by-covid/441128/
Hosseini-Divkalayi, N., & Seighali, F. (2010). Blood donor incentives: A step forward or backward. Asian Journal of Transfusion Science, 4(1), 9. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-6247.59385
James Harrison (blood donor) – MediHelp. (n.d.). Retrieved September 11, 2020, from https://medihelp.life/james-harrison-blood-donor/#:~:text=On%2011%20May%202018%20he
“Man With The Golden Arm” Donates Blood That Has Saved 2 Million Babies. (n.d.). NPR.Org. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2015/06/14/414397424/man-with-the-golden-arm-donates-blood-thats-saved-2-million-babies
Makin, J. K., Francis, K. L., Polonsky, M. J., & Renzaho, A. M. N. (2019). Interventions to Increase Blood Donation among Ethnic/Racial Minorities: A Systematic Review. Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2019, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/6810959
National coronavirus surge leads to emergency convalescent plasma shortage. (n.d.). Www.Redcross.Org. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from https://www.redcross.org/about-us/news-and-events/press-release/2020/national-coronavirus-surge-leads-to-emergency-convalescent-plasma-shortage.html
Roberts, N., James, S., Delaney, M., & Fitzmaurice, C. (2019). The global need and availability of blood products: A modelling study. The Lancet Haematology, 6(12). doi:10.1016/s2352-3026(19)30200-5 t
Simpson, J. (2016, January 7). How the NHS used social media to triple blood donor registrations. Econsultancy. https://econsultancy.com/how-the-nhs-used-social-media-to-triple-blood-donor-registrations/
UCI Health. (2018, March 1). Blood donation: fact vs. fiction. UCI Health | Orange County, CA. https://www.ucihealth.org/blog/2018/03/blood-donation-myths
World facing blood shortages due to COVID-19 pandemic. (2020). World facing blood shortages due to COVID-19 pandemic. Aa.Com.Tr. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/latest-on-coronavirus-outbreak/world-facing-blood-shortages-due-to-covid-19-pandemic/1802664