Who Let The Doc Out?! #024: What to know about blood donation

The first successful blood transfusion happened in 1665, in England. Physician Richard Lower saved dogs’ lives by transfusing blood from other dogs. In 1818, James Blundell performed the first successful human blood transfusion to treat postpartum haemorrhage. Since then, blood transfusion is a mainstay in medical practice, going on to save billions of lives.

Voluntary blood donation is the main source of blood for transfusion; annually, over 100 million people donate blood globally. However, there are several ongoing efforts to increase the availability of synthetic and artificial blood substitutes as an alternative to blood donation.

Still, in spite of the numerous benefits of blood donation, many people are hesitant to give blood. In this article, we will explore the basics of blood donation and explain why it is crucial.

What is Blood Donation?

First, let’s define what blood donation is and how it works. Blood donation is the voluntary process of giving blood to a blood bank or a hospital. Blood is collected in sterile plastic bags containing sodium citrate, which prevents the blood from clotting.

It is then tested for blood type (ABO group) and Rhesus type (positive or negative) to ensure patients receive blood that matches their blood type. All donor blood is also tested for pathogens like Hepatitis B and C viruses and HIV to ensure that it is safe for transfusion. Once determined that the blood is safe, it is stored until it is needed for a transfusion.

Why is Blood Donation Important?

The most obvious reason why blood donation is important is that it can help save lives. In cases of illness or injury, blood transfusions are often lifesaving. For example, if someone has lost a lot of blood due to an accident or surgery, a blood transfusion can help replace the lost blood and prevent further complications. Other conditions that require transfusion include:

  • Illnesses affecting blood e.g. sickle cell anaemia, thalassemia
  • People undergoing heavy cancer treatment like chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which often suppress the body’s production of blood
  • People receiving organ transplants

Blood donation is also important for maintaining diversity in the blood supply. Some people have rare blood types and can only receive blood from particular compatible blood types.

These rare blood types are usually unique and specific to specific racial and ethnic groups, for example U-negative and Duffy-negative blood types among African Americans. Regular blood donations from a racially and ethnically diverse population ensure that there is always a ready supply of blood from different blood types to save lives. Also, donating blood is not just good for the recipients of blood transfusions; it is also greatly beneficial for the donors themselves.

Routine health checkups done on persons looking to donate blood can help unmask health conditions previously unknown to them. Also, studies suggest that people who donate blood regularly are 30% less likely to die than their non-donor counterparts.

People with conditions that cause excessive and potentially harmful iron levels in the body like haematochromatosis are able to reduce their iron levels with regular donations. However, it’s not all benefits when it comes to donating blood. There are some adverse effects a person may experience after donating blood, although they are rare, and they include:

  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low blood sugar
  • Fainting
  • Convulsions
  • Vomiting

It is therefore important to ensure that you fit the criteria for a suitable blood donor, as these measures are put in place to protect both donors and recipients. The World Health Organisation blood donor selection guidelines include the following criteria:

  • Should be between 16 and 65 years old
  • Should appear generally well and be in good nutritional state
  • Should weight at least 45kg
  • If any body piercings or tattoos are present, the risk of transfusion-transmissible infections should be assessed closely
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women are not allowed to donate blood

Other criteria are dependent upon the requirements of different countries. The minimum interval between donations of whole blood should be 12 weeks for males and 16 weeks for women. At the end of the day, blood donation is an important act that can save lives.

Whether one’s motivation for donating blood is for personal benefit or the desire to help others in need, it can be a deeply rewarding experience. And with an understanding of the process of blood donation, its benefits, and its potential risks, individuals are now better equipped to make an informed decision about whether or not to donate blood.

Innocent Immaculate Acan is a medical doctor and writer. She won the Writivism Short Story Prize in 2016 and has published an illustrated children’s book titled The Pearl Trotters in Black, Yellow, Red. She was part of the 2018 class of the Young and Emerging Leaders Project.

Innocent Immaculate Acan