Commentary: Let’s not wait till war strikes to donate blood
Getting people to donate blood has always been challenging, but the situation has gotten worse with the COVID-19 pandemic, says Singapore Kindness Movement’s William Wan.
SINGAPORE: Ukrainians queued in the cold for hours to donate blood, after Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy put out an appeal in the early days of the Russian invasion.
The administration of Kyiv said that three times the average number of donors showed up in the capital city alone. Medical staff at one blood donation drive in central Ukraine even slept on-site to ensure that they could help as many donors as possible.
It’s plain to see how much good people are capable of doing, especially in times of trouble when it’s literally a matter of life and death.
Donating blood is a truly selfless act – to give with no reward, except for the knowledge that we could help save a life (and get a free cup of Milo).
But it should not take a war to move us to donate blood. Blood is needed every day.
The Singapore Red Cross estimates that every hour, 15 units of blood are used in Singapore. This adds up to more than 400 units a day, or about 120,000 units, to meet the transfusion needs of patients every year.
Nine days’ worth of supply needs to be maintained in the national inventory in peacetime and during emergencies, according to the Health Sciences Authority (HSA). There are contingency plans in place, but the scenes in Ukraine remind us that this can’t be taken for granted.
COVID-19 MADE BLOOD DONATION MORE CHALLENGING
Getting people to donate blood has been a perennially challenging process, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made everything worse.
There were more than 75,000 donors in 2019, but the number fell to 72,000 in 2020 when the pandemic hit – the lowest in five years then. It fell again to 69,000 donors in 2021.
Fears about COVID-19 infection and precautionary measures have kept more people home and made blood drives more difficult. Singapore Red Cross (SRC) chief executive Benjamin William said 69 mobile blood drives were cancelled in 2021 when Singapore cycled through phases of Heightened Alert and faced down the Delta surge and Omicron wave.
Some countries disallow blood donations from people who have just been vaccinated or are recovering from COVID-19 infection. In Singapore, those who are vaccinated against COVID-19 can donate blood. But there is a waiting period to donate depending on several factors.
Low blood supplies are a matter of great concern because patients may need urgent surgery or blood transfusions. Doctors in South Korea and Thailand have recounted surgeries being postponed due to a lack of blood.
According to Mr William, 42 per cent of SRC’s blood donors are regulars who donate at least two times a year. While many Singapore residents are willing to try out blood donation once, they may not necessarily return to donate a second or third time.
ENCOURAGING YOUTH DONORS AND DEBUNKING MYTHS
On top of that, SRC recently reported a decline in the number of young blood donors aged 16 to 25. This group currently makes up about a fifth of the donor pool, down from a third a decade ago.
To encourage more young blood donors, we need to understand their motivations and fears about donating blood.
Jewel told the Singapore Kindness Movement that she didn’t let COVID-19 stop her from donating. Then aged 17, she needed her parents’ permission to donate blood and did so every three months, the minimum interval between donations.
While she was initially afraid of needles, she found her experience essentially painless. “I think it is natural for people to want to help others, and hopefully, by encouraging people to act on this instinct, it is possible to inspire kindness in others”, she said. “If I can do it, other teenagers can do it too.”
My former colleague, 32-year-old Nur Muhammad, is also a regular blood donor who has been donating since he was a teenager. He told me he started donating when he was 17, together with his mum, but she had to stop after being diagnosed with hypertension.
“A part of me feels like I’m carrying on that willingness my mum had to donate. We are still relatively young, so I donate because I still can”, he said.
SRC is making donating blood more accessible to younger Singaporeans through a mobile app, social media, such as Instagram and Facebook, and the giveblood.sg website. Meanwhile, HSA has published articles online debunking myths and misconceptions about blood donation during blood drives.
With Singapore easing safe management measures and moving towards living with endemic COVID-19, it will be vital for mobile blood drives to make a comeback, including in schools.
Jewel said she donated blood for the first time at her school’s annual blood drive, which was always a “huge event”. There were student organisers on hand to explain the processes and friends to encourage and support each other.
Singapore’s youth are the next generation of blood donors. The hope is that a reassuring and supportive setting will help youths overcome their hesitation to donate blood for the first time, so they realise the process is easy, painless and safe, and worth going through regularly.
GOOD HABITS IN PEACETIME WILL HELP US IN EMERGENCIES
Just as Ukrainians have heeded the rallying cry to donate blood, I believe Singapore will do the same if the need arises.
But if we are willing, why wait till then? Why only donate blood when there are situations of mass casualties?
Donating blood should be second nature to us, just like helping a neighbour or volunteering at a charity. It takes us little more effort than showing up and wanting to help.
Mr William agrees that we should consider blood donation as part of our lifestyle and not see it as an extraordinary humanitarian act when there is an appeal. Medical science may have advanced over the years, but a constant supply of healthy blood is still needed to keep the system running.
Let's play our part to sustain an adequate blood supply for Singapore. Those who can’t donate can still contribute in other ways, like raising awareness in our communities. The lives that are saved tomorrow could depend on our actions today.
Dr William Wan is the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.