By Emily May, Research Analyst, Centre for Health Solutions
Giving blood or blood plasma saves lives, both in an emergency and for those people needing long-term treatments. Unfortunately, there are still many whose treatments are compromised because there aren’t enough supplies. Every year on June 14, organisations around the globe celebrate World Blood Donor Day (WBDD). This year’s WBDD campaign has the slogan ‘Give blood and keep the world beating’, aimed at reinforcing the global call for more people all over the world to donate blood regularly.1 In the UK, alongside championing donors, NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) have used WBDD to introduce a new blood donation safety assessment initiative aimed at making donating blood more inclusive and accessible without affecting safety.2 This week’s blog explores this new initiative and how extra safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic have protected the health of donors to enable blood donations to continue safely.
World Blood Donor Day 2021
The 2021 WBDD campaign pays tribute to the critical contribution that unpaid voluntary blood and plasma donors make to national health systems while raising awareness of the importance of donations being made regularly so that healthcare providers around the globe always have access to high-quality blood and blood products. The day also provides an opportunity to raise awareness among governments and health authorities of the need to strengthen the networks that facilitate and improve the donation process. This includes providing adequate resources and putting in place systems and infrastructure that ensures a safe and sufficient blood supply from voluntary, non-remunerated blood donors. A special focus of this year’s campaign is on the role of young people including:
- thanking blood donors and creating wider public awareness of the need for regular, unpaid blood donation;
- promoting the community values of blood donation in enhancing community solidarity and social cohesion;
- encouraging young people to embrace the humanitarian call to donate blood and inspire others to do the same;
- celebrating the potential of young people as partners in promoting health.3
The UK’s new donor safety assessment
World Blood Donor Day is often accompanied in the UK with the implementation of new initiatives. One that resonated strongly with me from a couple of years ago was the automation of a post-donation text which informs you when your donation has been dispatched and to which hospital. Such messages always reinforce that warm glow feeling which is an important factor in both recruitment and retention of blood donors. This year NHSBT have made an historic move to make blood donation more inclusive without affecting safety. The change means that eligibility to donate will be based on a more individualised, gender-neutral assessment, which should enable a greater proportion of the population to make the life-saving decision to give blood safely.
The new safety check means all donors, regardless of gender, will complete an assessment form that for the first time asks the same questions about relationships and behaviours focused mainly on the last three months. This means more people from the LGBTQ+ community will be able to give blood. The change is based on recommendations from the Advisory Committee for the Safety of Blood Tissues and Organs and FAIR (For the Assessment of Individualised Risk) steering group. Moreover, the new donor selection criteria and screening of all donations for evidence of significant infections will continue to maintain the safety of the blood supply.4
COVID-19 impact on donating blood
Throughout the pandemic, the UK government permitted people to travel to donate blood and plasma considering it an essential activity, given it helps meet the medical needs of vulnerable people. Centres therefore remained open but introduced a range of new extra safety measures to ensure that only donors who are well and not at higher risk from COVID-19 enter the donation area. While safety has always been a major concern for donors and a top priority for NHSBT, a survey found that COVID-19 had raised safety concerns, with one in five (19 per cent) believing it would be unsafe to donate during this pandemic.6
NHSBT constantly reviews safety measures to keep up with the latest scientific advice and government guidelines. Extra safety measures that I have seen for myself when donating blood during the pandemic include a temperature check on arrival, a socially distanced waiting room, extra cleaning protocols including laminated safety documents, as well as both staff and donors having to wear face coverings. NHSBT explained that these extra measures mean “giving blood now is as safe as it’s always been and all sessions are COVID-secure” and “on the whole donors tell us these new steps put them at ease.”7
At the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, the number of blood donations collected was 15 per cent lower than expected. However, the impact was largely mitigated by a drop in demand due to the cancellation of elective operations, so consequently stocks remained stable.8 Fortunately, data shows that blood stock has stayed above the six-day target since March 2020 and, even as the infection rates peaked in early April, there was 11 days of blood available, which is double normal levels.9 This is crucial as the need for blood hasn’t reduced significantly during the pandemic, with NHSBT still requiring around 135,000 new donors every year to ensure the needs of patients are met now and in the future.10
As lockdown eases and vaccination rates increase, an emerging concern is donating blood after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. As a precautionary measure to keep blood safe, donors are asked to wait seven days post-vaccine before donating, ensuring that any vaccine side effects are unlikely to be confused with illness after donating. It is very unlikely that active ingredients of the vaccine will remain in the blood by the time of donation, and there is no evidence that the donation will transmit infection, but it may contain protective antibodies against COVID-19.11 Therefore, people are urged to continue, or begin, donating blood regularly.
Because of the actions taken by NHSBT to increase eligibility to donate blood by introducing a more individualised risk-based approach to selection criteria, and the continued safety measures put in place throughout the pandemic, blood donation across the UK is fairer, more inclusive and remains as safe as ever. As a regular blood donor myself, I champion this change in regulation to widen the accessibility of blood donation and believe the extra COVID-19 measures put in place have maintained blood donation as a safe activity – as well as being a particularly good reason to leave your house during stricter lockdown periods. So, wear a mask, stick to social distancing and be prepared to pre-order your post-donation snack orders, but continue to make the lifesaving decision to give blood.
1 World Blood Donor Day 2021 (wbdd2021.com)
2 UK to change eligibility to give blood on World Blood Donor Day with launch of new donor safety assessment - NHS Blood Donation
6 Survey carried out by Kantar/Research Express among a representative sample of 2,177 adults in England aged 16+ during 20-26 October 2020.
9 NHS birthday: celebrating role of blood donors in pandemic - NHS Blood Donation