Blood supply is critically low and a rise in demand looms, says the blood service

The South African National Blood Service (SANBS) has less than three days’ supply of certain blood types, but an increase in demand looms.

As South Africa has gradually seen an easing of lockdown restrictions relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a rise in blood demand, but collection has dropped, leaving supplies critically low since October.

The SANBS expects to be issuing a lot more blood in the coming fiscal year starting in April because general surgery is likely to increase with the pandemic and lockdown restrictions being eased. 

On Friday there were less than three days left of stock in blood types B+, AB-, and O+. A five-day stock level needs to be maintained to ensure sustained blood availability for patients who might need it.

The SANBS needs to collect 3 500 litres of blood daily but, by midweek, daily collections were only 2 300 litres, said national spokesperson Khensani Mahlangu.

Before Covid-19 was first reported in South Africa in March 2020, the blood bank recorded a new benchmark for the fiscal year April 2019 to March 2020 by reaching 923 315 collections. 

“In 2018 an initiative was launched where we hired more staff and invested in new clinics. This is why we saw good numbers in 2019. This, therefore, means 2019 is the benchmark for what we can do,” Mahlangu said.

For the fiscal year ending March 2021, blood collections dropped to 821 310, although this is expected to rise to 890 870 for the year ending March 2022.

For the year ending March 2021, “collecting was much less, but also our issues had gone down because the hospitals were not requesting much”, Mahlangu said.

“When everything was quiet the numbers reflected as stable throughout that period when we had five days of bloodstock. But as soon as the country reopened up again, we started to struggle not only with the collections but in issuing a whole lot more [blood],” she added.

A similar pattern has also emerged in the United States, with the American Red Cross announcing this past week that it was experiencing the “worst blood shortage in over a decade”, which had left it with less than one day’s supply of critical blood types in recent weeks.

“The dangerously low blood supply levels have forced some hospitals to defer patients from major surgery, including organ transplants. Your donation is desperately needed,” it said.

The American Red Cross, which recorded a 10% decline in blood donations since 2020, attributed the blood shortages partly to a 62% drop in college and high school blood drives; ongoing blood drive cancellations due to illness, weather-related closures and staffing limitations; and the recent surge in Covid-19 driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. 

Mahlangu attributed South Africa’s blood supply crunch to similar reasons, noting that people usually donated when it was easy for them to do so. 

Even as South Africa moved to lower levels of Covid-19 lockdown, the SANBS still could not carry out its usual campaigns, including drives at universities, schools and businesses, where people would take a break from their work to donate blood.

“Convenience is a very big thing for us,” said Mahlangu. “(We have not yet) cracked how to reach people and to do it in an altruistic fashion. The convenience has been really important for donors and something that they don’t have at the moment.”

Because of the pandemic, some people have also been hesitant to donate blood and the SANBS focused its communication on the message that it was safe to do so.

Two main challenges have been donor recruitment and long term retention, Mahlangu said. Donating on a consistent basis is essential because while plasma can be frozen, whole blood can only be refrigerated for up to 35 days, after which it must be discarded. 

To find out more about donating blood, or find a clinic near you, visit the South African National Blood Service here, or call the toll-free number 0800 119 031.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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