Supply is low at the moment so it’s very challenging,” Stephen Cousins, Donor Services Manager with the Irish Blood Transfusion Service says, speaking in late May.
He has the unenviable job of ensuring that blood donations match blood requirements in hospitals.
“We used to have seven days’ supply at any one time but we’re now currently at five days. That’s better than where we were but it’s not where we’d like to be. It’s low.”
The impact of low supply is that operations may be deferred.
“A few weeks ago we had to ask the hospitals to conserve what they were using i.e. put off a surgery for a few days if they could, to help us recover supply,” he says.
He gives the examples of there being only four days’ supply of A Positive and O Positive blood available and says that getting enough Rhesus Negative groups blood is particularly difficult.
“We really do struggle with the Rhesus Negative groups, O Neg and B Neg and A Neg. B Neg supply this morning is 2.2 days so that’s very low.”
Only 8% of the population have O Rhesus Negative blood, but this type of blood is especially important for our national blood bank.
“O Rhesus Negative is the universal donor blood group so that’ll be used for many patients. It makes up over 14.5% of all blood donations to the hospitals and we are only relying on 8% of the population to achieve that so that is always very, very demanding.”
He points out that there are certain treatments that require only O Neg.
“That’s why we would naturally collect more of that and we have to appeal to those donors an awful lot. If blood is imported by us that would be the reason, because O Neg blood is required for operations and we have to have it there.”
Demand from hospitals has increased
With hospitals now trying to catch up on surgeries and treatment as the pandemic abates, the demand for blood has increased.
“Since the beginning of the year we were running about 5 or 6 % above what we were issuing to the hospitals the previous year. That’s very much the hospitals getting back to normal and catching up, which is a credit to them. The problem for us (the IBTS) is that we rely on the community to give blood and COVID is still out there in the community so there are donors who can’t give blood because they’ve had COVID in the last seven days. All of that means that we have less donors available at a time when the hospitals are looking for more blood.”
Pandemic affected supply
The pandemic impacted greatly on supply, he added.
“All mobile units were out during COVID but there were certain venues in smaller rural towns we couldn’t go to because, with social distancing rules, they weren’t big enough. We set up in bigger urban areas instead and asked donors to travel and they responded really well, but for some it wasn’t convenient. It will take time to get people used to us being back in their local community centre but we look forward to that happening.”
The IBTS is very thankful to all who have donated regularly during the pandemic.
“Donating blood saves lives and we depend on people’s donations to do that. Without that blood the patient will either die or be unable to fight the illness that they have. I think that 70% of the blood we use is to help people with illnesses like cancer. Every family has been touched by this so being able to make an impact on that by simply donating is a phenomenal thing for donors to achieve.”
Stephen has two special requests at present.
“The first is to ask existing donors who generally donate once a year to consider giving twice a year. That would make a massive difference to supply.” The second relates to new donors.
“We need lots of new donors now,” he says. “They were averaging between 15,000 and 17,000 new donors a year before COVID and we are now down to just over 6,500 a year. This was because, with COVID restrictions, we couldn’t bring too many new donors along to clinics for assessment but we’re asking people to come in now. It’s vital that we get the message out there that new donors are needed as well as donors who haven’t donated for some time.”
Why all the questions?
Does all the questions that donors are asked put some people off?
“I don’t think so,” he says. “Donors are used to the questions and understand why we are asking them. The key thing for us is that, when we collect blood, it is as safe as possible for patients. Ireland has one of the safest blood supplies in the world.”
He points out how careful donors have to be, with decisions related to their health, before attending.
“Donors have to be careful not to attend, of course, if they have even a sniffle. Donating the blood wouldn’t affect them but if a [recipient] patient’s immune system is completely suppressed and he or she receives blood with a cold virus or something like that in it that could be very dangerous for them.
“We have to come from the patient’s point of view by making sure the blood is as safe as possible, so that’s why there are so many questions on the form about your health, including ones about sexual health.”
What happens after donation?
After a community blood donation clinic is over, the blood packs are ferried back to HQ labs for testing.
“After testing it goes direct to the hospitals that need it.”
Support from the farming community has always been strong, he adds.
“Support from farming and rural communities is fantastic. Blood donation is often seen as part of the local community, part of the community infrastructure like the credit union or the post office. Truth be told we lost a bit of that due to COVID, but we’re looking forward to getting back to areas once every three months and seeing new and existing donors there.”
The IBTS is now contacting youth organisations like Macra to appeal for new donors. CL
Conor Murphy is 28-years-old and an agricultural contractor from Cork. He tells us about how he got involved in donating blood.
“My father, Dermot, would always have been very good to give blood. He gave his 50th pint there lately. His brothers donate too so there has always been a great family tradition of donating blood really. I remember going with my father as a child and as soon as I turned 18, he encouraged me to donate. It was a good habit to get into, I think.”
But how does he feel about the experience in general?
“I’m fine about needles,” he says. “Taking off the plaster the next day is the worst bit. That’s sorer than the needle! I wouldn’t be squeamish at all though. You’re only lying on the seat for six minutes. That’s how long, roughly, it takes for the blood to come out.”
Conor would encourage others to donate.
“Thankfully I don’t know anyone who has needed a blood transfusion but I would like to think that if I did need it, there would be plenty of stocks to call upon.
“You hear that stocks are low quite frequently and of them bringing in blood from England sometimes, but there’s plenty people over here who could donate. I think every person should, if possible, try it at least once. It’s not for everyone, of course, and I wouldn’t force anyone to do it, some people can’t because their iron levels mightn’t be right, but it’s as good a habit as you could have.”
Conor continued to donate during pandemic lockdowns.
“You could donate when you couldn’t do anything else,” he said. “Prior to COVID we used to go to the mobile clinics in Blarney or Glanmire but recently we’ve been booking an appointment in the Cork University Hospital (CUH) clinic. It’s 20 minutes’ drive from me, that’s all.”
Conor likes getting the thank you text from the IBTS after donating.
“The last blood I gave went to a patient in St James’s, they told me. Those texts make it real for you. Someone is waiting on the blood. You’re thinking it’s after helping somebody for the better now.”
Conor donates every 90 days (the maximum allowed) and has donated 28 pints to date. He likes the idea of helping others.
“You do get a buzz out of it, a sense of satisfaction. You’re no longer than a half an hour there [at the clinic]. It’s relaxing and comfortable and it’s all fine if you drink lots of water and have your supper before you go in. As a new donor you go in and fill out the form. The staff at the clinics are all sound so it’s easy. There’s no stress, no pressure. If it’s your first time they have no trouble explaining it all and, with an appointment, you get in and out quick.”
Find information on giving blood on www.giveblood.ie and take a quick eligibility quiz www.giveblood.ie/can-i-give-blood/blood-eligibility-quiz1/ . There are two quizzes – one for new donors and one for those who haven’t donated in the past five years.