Spokespersons from the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) have recently called for an increase of over 1,500 donations in the next three weeks to replenish stock. At the time of writing, the IBTS had estimated supplies of only 4 days for some blood types. Officials made a particular plea for donations from persons with blood type O positive, as almost half the population are that type, or O negative, a blood type that can be universally accepted by those in need where their own blood group is not available. The IBTS aim to replenish their supplies up to 7 days’ worth at least.
The principal reason for such inadequate supplies is the number of people turned away each day by clinics all over Ireland, for a multitude of reasons. Donors must be over 18 years of age and under 65 to donate for the first time, under 70 if they have donated in the last 2 years, or over 70 if they obtain a medical cert from a GP. You cannot donate if you have a cold sore, a cold, sunburn, for up to 4 months after a piercing or tattoo, while pregnant (or 12 months after giving birth or a miscarriage), if you are currently taking antibiotics or took them under 2 weeks ago for an infection, if you are taking lithium or other medication for manic-depressive disorder, or if you weigh under 50kg or over 130kg.
One of the most controversial restrictions the IBTS places on its donors concerns one group in particular, Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM). Females cannot donate for 12 months after sex with a male who has ever had oral or anal sex with another male, with or without use of a condom or another form of protection. Currently, males who have ever had oral or anal sex with another male, with or without use of a condom or another form of protection are restricted from donating. Males who fall under this restriction face a lifetime ban until 16 October 2017, when new guidelines will come into place allowing them to donate as long as they abstain from oral or anal sex with other men for at least 12 months prior to donating. A statement on the Service’s old website “accepts that we are being discriminatory; we discriminate against several groups in the community insofar as we refuse to allow them to donate blood on the basis of perceived increased risk of spreading infections through blood transfusion.” The ban was established in the 1980s in direct response to the widespread panic in Ireland about the AIDs prevalence in gay men and its ability to spread through the transfusion of blood. All blood donated to the IBTS is thoroughly tested, but the virus can take months to show up in tests, so can be unintentionally spread if recently contracted. Panic over the virus was heightened after thousands were infected with Hepatitis C through blood transfusions in 1976. Brian Sheehan, director of the IBTS has referred to the change as “a welcome step.” He said the IBTS worked to the best of their ability to ensure the donation process was based on leading scientific technology and behaviour, not stereotypes. Ireland makes the change to a 1 year deferral period on the foot of the same change in the UK in 2011. This change to Irish law was made after a several year-long legal challenge was brought against the state by journalist Tomás Heneghan, who dropped his case earlier this year following statements from Minister for Health Simon Harris noting his intention to adopt a new policy.
The IBTS launched a similar appeal to this one on a grander scale in November 2015, when it was revealed that a device used to test for anaemia in women had been giving inaccurate readings, and as such placed a blanket ban on all female donors. They pleaded for male donors to come forward to fill the supply gaps. Fortunately the suspension lasted only a few days. The IBTS concede that, while females attend clinics more often than men, donations are more often accepted from men due to low iron and haemoglobin levels in women from menstruation and pregnancy.
Other restrictions imposed on donors, in line with guidelines from the European Union, World Health Organisation, and the Irish Medicines Board, include never being allowed to donate if you’ve ever had a blood transfusion outside Ireland, or in Ireland before January 1980, up to 3 months after travel to tropical areas, 12 months after travel to malarial areas, 8 weeks after certain vaccines, never if you were resident in the UK for a year or more between 1980 and 1996, 12 months after sex with anyone who has ‘HIV, Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C’, anyone who has ever been given money or drugs for sex, anyone who has ever injected non-prescribed drugs or anyone who has had sex in areas of the world where HIV is common. You cannot donate 12 months after you last snorted a non-prescription drug, or ever if you or your partner have ‘HIV, Hepatitis B or C’, you or your partner have ever taken money or drugs for sex, or you or your partner have ever injected with a non-prescription drug. If you were born outside of the UK or Ireland you must first have a sample of blood tested by the IBTS before donating.
Those who donate frequently and consistently (a minimum of 90 days must elapse between every transfusion) are acknowledged for their dedication through a series of awards: a silver award is gifted for 10 donations; a gold award for 20 donations; and for 50 & 100 donations a gold pin in the shape of a drop of blood and a porcelain pelican are awarded respectively, along with a presentation at an awards dinner ceremony.
The IBTS’ supplies are frequently depleted below levels that would be required if an emergency were to arise, due primarily to the restriction of thousands of potential donors. A balance between preserving blood safety and stabilising stocks is extremely difficult to maintain.
The IBTS urges anyone who might to eligible to donate to attend one of their clinics. A clinic is being held in UCC on the 14th and 15th of November, with stands in Brookfield, Main Campus, and the Western Gateway Building.