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'Newborn babies can only receive blood given in the last five days - so why are so few of us donating?'

Only 3% of us who are eligible to give blood actually do so.

BLOOD IS NEEDED every day to save lives, to improve health and to ensure that surgeries and transplants can take place.

One stark statistic that the public is often surprised to learn is that blood donations only last 35 days before they have to be disposed of – this is why we need a constant pipeline of donors to maintain a consistent supply.

In the case of blood for newborn babies, blood for these lasts just five days and as a result there is constant pressure to maintain supply. The criteria for donors who are eligible to donate for babies is more strict than for adults. Therefore, there is a much smaller pool of available donors. Donors who are eligible feel very special and invariably turn up when contacted.

Only 3% of those eligible to give blood do so

So why is it that only 3% of the eligible population donate? We talk all the time about how generous Irish people are and how we respond when asked to help out in a humanitarian crisis whether at home or abroad. Where does this generosity go when it comes to donating blood? One response could be that it is far easier to give money than give time.

However, those who donate blood are very loyal and respond anytime there is a shortage. As Chief Executive of the IBTS I have seen the public respond many times when we have made an urgent call for donors. The most recent example of this was in the aftermath of Storm Emma when the blood supply was dangerously low because so many clinics were cancelled. If enough people do not donate then much of modern medicine could not happen and the health service could not function.

Donating blood is one of the most selfless acts a person can do. Even though the donor will never know who receives their blood it builds that connection, gives a sense of belonging and creates a bond between the donor and a patient. Blood Services often use the tag line “Blood Saves Lives”. However, it does a lot more than that, it improves health, gives hope and creates a sense of community.

What if it was your child or loved one in need?

We all know someone who has had cancer – a loved one, a family member, friend or work colleague. They will as part of their treatment have required blood and platelets. If this was your parent, sibling, spouse or child would you donate? I think if we thought about it the answer would be a resounding yes. So why do the many leave it to the few to donate?

Altruism is still the cornerstone of donation but this will be influenced by cultural issues and norms. Throughout the year I visit clinics across the country to meet staff and chat to the donors. I often ask them why they have come in to donate. The answers are varied but it usually boils down to people wanting to do something good and giving something back.

Paying it forward

This is especially true if they have a family member who received blood. Often donors tell me it’s about paying it forward, its their way of ensuring that blood will be there if they need it. I find that these are the main drivers for people donating.

Something else I have noticed over the years of visiting blood donation clinics and attending donor awards ceremonies and that is that the influence of a family tradition should not be underestimated. Often times a parent would bring their son or daughter with them to give their first donation when they turn 18.

Sisters, parents, spouses coming together to donate

I visited a clinic in Kilkenny City on 31 July and met two sets of sisters, a father and daughter, and a husband and wife, all of whom were donating. It is also true that we get a better response in towns and rural areas then big urban centres.

The challenge for blood services in the present fast-paced technologically-driven world is how we connect with donors because traditional means of communication are no longer as effective as they once were. For people between 18 and 35 who are always online we need to have an active presence on social media and other platforms where we know that young people visit to look, listen or post.

One of our campaigns for the past two years has been Missing Types where we get organisations to drop the O, A or B from their name signifying the drop-off in donations. This campaign has trended No 1 on Twitter when it takes place.

Drop in number of new donors

There has been a demographic change in Ireland, characterised by falling birth rates and an increasing life expectancy. This has meant that the average age of donors is getting older. In the past 10 years the average age of a donor has gone from 38.4 to 40.8. In Ireland there is a particular need for new donors as 21% fewer people came forward to donate for the first time in 2015 compared to 2010.

We are living in a much more multi-cultural society. This is a challenge for the IBTS and we must engage much more with ethnic groups to get them to donate not only to improve supply but to make sure that blood is there for them because they will have different blood types not available in the general population.

‘Bloody foreigners’

The Immigrant Council of Ireland launched a campaign called “Bloody Foreigners” which is targeted at the Polish community to increase the number of donors from that community. The Polish community have responded magnificently and are actively promoting blood donation in their own community. They have set an example for other migrant groups but also for Irish people to become donors.

The IBTS is always looking at new ways of thanking donors and also motivating them to continue donating. So recently we began sending a text message to a donor telling them that their donation had been sent to a specific hospital. The donors really appreciate this and it completes the circle from the donor to the blood service to the patient.

Our social media campaign Every One Counts has at its heart the few telling the many to spread the word about becoming blood donors. It is a mirror of the percentage of the population who donate.

Fear of needles is understandable – the rest is an excuse

When we carry out research to understand the reasons why people do not donate we find that the main reasons are – not enough time, not convenient, not accessible, afraid of needles, never thought about it.

Except for the fear of needles – which can be a very genuine fear – I think that the other
reasons should be more correctly categorised as excuses. If it was important enough then surely more people would find the time and the place to donate.

Donors often ask what happens to their donation after it leaves the donor clinic. When blood is donated it is not taken straight to a patient. The IBTS needs time to test it and process it. The different components such as platelets and red blood cells need to be separated out. Typically, a blood donation will only reach a patient two or three weeks after the donor donates.

Every Donation counts. So make the time, find the clinic and go and save a life today.

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