The world today honours voluntary blood donors for their priceless contribution to their communities. However, while celebrations take place in many cities around the world, numerous patients and trauma victims in those same cities will be dying or suffering unnecessarily because of a shortage of blood.
82% of the world's population does not have the certainty that they will receive blood should they or their loved ones suddenly need a blood transfusion; and if they do, they have no guarantee that the blood will be safe.
Many of these people live in regions with the heaviest burden of disease in the world and therefore need an adequate, safe supply of blood and blood products at all times. In these countries, blood is constantly needed for life-threatening conditions such as severe anaemia in children due to malaria and poor nutrition and pregnancy-related complications in women.
“A sufficient, safe blood supply is a key part of an effective health care system and essential for disease prevention,” says LEE Jong-wook, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). “In our work to increase access to treatment for people living with AIDS around the world, safe blood is a crucial part of our prevention and care strategy.”
The basis for an adequate supply of safe blood is a pool of healthy, regular, voluntary donors who give blood without financial or other reward. Research has shown that donors who give blood of their own free will without the expectation of payment are the ‘safest’ donors. However, a recent WHO survey shows that out of 178 countries, only 39 have 100% voluntary, unpaid blood donation.
89% of low and medium Human Development Index (HDI) countries rely on family replacement donations (where a member of the patient’s family has to replace the units of blood given to the patient) and paid donations. In those countries, the seroprevalence for transfusion-transmissible infections (HIV, hepatitis B and C and syphilis) in blood donors is much higher than in countries with full voluntary, unpaid donations.
The survey also showed that 20 countries in the world do not have 100% screening for HIV, 24 for hepatitis B, 37 for hepatitis C and 24 for syphilis. Furthermore, a number of countries do not test at all for these infections (one country for HIV, four for hepatitis B, 31 for hepatitis C and nine for syphilis).
In spite of the fact that little progress has been made in low and middle income regions, some countries with high seroprevalence of transfusion-transmissible infections have been very successful in addressing the issue. South Africa and Zimbabwe, for instance, sought new strategies in the 1980s, at the onset of the AIDS epidemic, to ensure that their blood supply was safe.
One such strategy is the Pledge or Club 25 initiative, whereby school leavers pledge to give blood 25 times by the age of 25, while also committing to lead healthy lives in order for their blood to be beneficial to patients. Originated in Zimbabwe, these groups have served as examples for several other countries facing blood safety problems in Africa and Asia.
The success of the Pledge 25 concept is demonstrated by the fact that in Zimbabwe HIV infection rates among blood donors fell from 4.45% in 1989 to 0.61% in 2001 — the country's infection rates in the sexually active population was 33.7% at the time. In South Africa, where 80% of new infections occur among 16-28 year-olds (about the same ages as Club 25 members), the prevalence of HIV infection among Club 25 members is only 0.04%.
World Blood Donor Day is a celebration of the unsung heroes directly responsible for saving or improving the lives of millions of patients. More fundamentally, it is an urgent invitation to people, particularly young people, to make responsible choices, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and give blood regularly.
Campaigns with the theme "Blood, a Gift for Life" have started or are being launched in all corners of the world. In Johannesburg, South Africa, where the main global launch of World Blood Donor Day will take place, school children and young adults will mix with national pop stars, medical and international health experts and patients whose lives have been saved through blood transfusion for a musical extravaganza in honour of the world’s unsung heroes who have made it their responsibility to give blood regularly without any compensation. A special tribute will be paid to the country’s Club 25 members.
World Blood Donor Day is co-sponsored by four international organizations working for the provision of safe blood globally through the promotion of voluntary, non-remunerated blood donation: the World Health Organization, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Federation of Blood Donor Organizations and the International Society of Blood Transfusion. Events in Johannesburg have been organized by the South African National Blood Service and are supported by the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The Day is endorsed and supported by the International Federation of Football Associations (FIFA).
More on World Blood Donor Day, the campaign “Blood, a Gift for Life” and activities in different parts of the world can be found on the web site www.wbdd.org .