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Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) marks 14th June as world blood donor day, to emphasize the crucial role that blood donation plays in saving lives. The theme of this year’s campaign is ‘Thank you for saving my life’, in recognition of the many millions of people who voluntarily donate blood, and to encourage more people all over the world to donate blood voluntarily and regularly.

Arjen Dondorp at work in Chittagong, BangladeshArjen Dondorp at work in Chittagong, BangladeshNDM researchers are also working on ways to improve blood transfusions, and we caught up with Professor Arjen Dondorp, an active clinician as well as a medical researcher: he is the Deputy Director and head of Malaria Research at the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok, Thailand.

In addition to researching malaria, his group is coordinating a concentrated effort to improve intensive care medicine in resource-poor countries throughout the developing world, from Asia to Africa.

We asked him why it was so important to donate blood, and the particular challenges of ensuring safe blood transfusion in developing countries with limited health resources.

Q: Why is donating blood so important?

Arjen Dondorp: Blood transfusions are a life-saving treatment in a large variety of conditions in both rich and poor countries. Blood products are not only needed in case of massive blood loss, such as in trauma patients, major surgery, during complicated child birth or gastro-intestinal bleeds. It is also an essential component in the treatment of many other diseases, such as certain cancers and infectious diseases.

Nurse with 2 children © WHONurse with 2 children © WHO

Q: What are some of the challenges involved in implementing safe blood transfusions in developing countries?

AD: Access to safe blood supplies is a huge challenge for many developing countries. Testing blood products for the HIV and hepatitis B viruses is essential everywhere in the world, but especially in several of the developing world countries, where the burden of these diseases is higher. Although more and more developing world countries are now ensuring testing, it has been estimated that between 8 and 16 million hepatitis B virus infections, 2 to 5 million hepatitis C infections, and between 80 and 160,000 HIV infections are caused by unsafe blood transfusions each year. In countries with high malaria transmission, more than 30% of the blood donors can carry malaria parasites, which can be transmitted by transfusion.

Q: What kind of conditions and patients need blood transfusions in these countries?

AD: It has been estimated that 25% of maternal deaths from pregnancy-related causes are linked with blood loss. In addition, there are more victims of traffic accidents needing blood transfusions in developing countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, malaria is a very common cause of severe anaemia in young children. A blood transfusion can be a life-saving treatment here.

Q: How do medical workers ensure that donated blood is safe?

AD: The safest sources of blood are voluntary unpaid donors. Blood needs to be screened for HIV and hepatitis B everywhere and for hepatitis C in most countries. Depending on the country, blood has to be tested also for malaria, or other pathogens. Since many hospitals rely on transfusion of fresh blood from family members, screening for syphilis is also important.

Q: Are the supplies of safe blood adequate?

AD: Blood supplies of safe blood are not adequate in developing countries: 80% of the world’s population has access to 20% of the world’s safe blood supply. In many resource-poor settings, blood transfusions rely on the willingness of family members to donate their blood, since blood banks are often not in place.

Q: Why does the WHO have a special focus on promoting voluntary, unpaid blood donations?

AD: It has been shown that this is the safest source of blood everywhere, independent of the income-level of the country.

Q: What are some of the factors preventing people from donating blood? How can we encourage more people to donate blood?

AD: The willingness of people to donate blood varies from country to country, as do the reasons behind this. Sometimes there are specific cultural taboos or misinformation about donating blood. Campaigns to encourage blood donation will thus have to address the specific context of the country. However, emphasizing that donating your blood can save the life of your fellow human being will be an important message everywhere.

Find out more about Professor Dondorp's work.