Inside the Blood Bank

On World Blood Donor Day

On the radio, you'll often hear the announcement "O negative blood urgently needed, please contact us if you can help." You might occasionally see requests for blood from desperate families seeking help for their loved ones on social media.

Sri Lankans have proved generous in times of crisis – the recent floods and landslides are good examples of this. Are people as generous when giving their own blood to a stranger?

June 14 is World Blood Donor Day, and Groundviews went inside the National Blood Transfusion Service (known colloquially as the Blood Bank) in Narahenpita. 

The building itself is light, airy and quiet, with officials moving around purposefully.

On one side, an official places a drop of blood carefully on a slide. Through another room, smiling nurses help donors onto reclining chairs, where they begin the process of drawing blood – typically, around 450 milliletres per unit.

The Blood Bank acts as central coordinator for blood transfusions, working in tandem with blood banks in base hospitals across the island.

While many might be familiar with the process of donating blood, not many realize the fine-tuning and balance that needs to go into maintaining the preservation of blood.

"We don't just give patients the blood as is, as we used to before. Instead, we separate the different components – red cells, white cells and plasma, and vet each sample," Head of Operations/Senior Public Health Inspector at the National Blood Transfusion Service, Manjula Jayaweera says.

The samples are then tested for diseases such as Hepatitis B and C, HIV, malaria and syphilis. It is only once they are cleared as safe that they are passed on. The blood is then given out on a request basis – mainly to state and private hospitals.

Not many people realize this, but blood does in fact, expire. Red blood cells can take anywhere between 35 to 42 days to expire, platelets can take 5 days, while white blood cells can expire in 24 hours. However, it's now possible to freeze rare blood types, so that samples can be used for up to 10 years, Manjula says.

Maintaining proper stocks is crucial – it’s important to maintain a balance between ensuring there is enough to meet a crisis, while ensuring that stocks are always fresh.

Around 400,000 pints of blood are collected every year, Manjula says – all from unpaid, voluntary donors. After proper screening, this is actually the safest method of obtaining blood – the World Health Organisation has asked all countries to obtain 100% of their blood related supply from voluntary, unpaid donors by 2020.

The donation process is as simple as filling a form. 

The forms for donating blood are trilingual, and people can choose to fill the form out in the language they are most comfortable in.

"We look at two aspects. The first is donor safety. We don't want the donor to fall ill or faint after giving blood. We also need to look out for the safety of patients – they are already hospitalized and in a weak state, and can’t fall ill even further due to contaminated blood," Manjula explains.

Donors also have to answer questions on whether they got proper sleep and have eaten prior to giving blood. Would-be donors also need to verify if they've travelled outside the country recently – ideally they should wait 6 months before donating. "This is because we can ensure the donor might have been exposed to an illness which we wouldn’t know how to or wouldn’t think to screen for," Manjula explained. "After 6 months, we know it’s reasonably safe that the person donating hasn’t contracted an illness from overseas." “At times, people might donate blood without realizing they have an illness, such as HIV. In this case we inform them, so that they can get the treatment they need. We also need to screen properly, to ensure a patient doesn’t fall sick because of blood we give them," Manjula says.

For this reason, donors have to provide their NIC, passport or driving license numbers. However there's no other identification needed – the forms do not even ask a donor to specify ethnicity or religion.

The act of donating blood could be said to be one of the most compelling reminders that Sri Lankans can, and do, unite in a time of crisis. Every year, people of all ethnicities and religions come together to donate blood and help those in need. It is a measure of this spirit that Sri Lanka's Blood Bank is entirely supplied by voluntary donations. Given the conflicts Sri Lanka has tussled with in the past, including the continued proliferation of Sinha-Le stickers on trishaws and vehicles, it is important to remember that blood has no markers, as reggae band Jayasri aptly pointed out last year during a concert.

Donating blood is a simple, painless procedure that can save lives – so this June, consider doing your part too.

Courtesy the Blood Group SL