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The Most Precious Gift

Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion

Earlier this week, I headed over to the National Blood Bank in Asmara to donate blood. As a member of the National Voluntary Blood Donor Association of Eritrea I regularly donate blood every several months.

In recent months, many blood donation centers around the world have experienced dramatic reductions in donations as a result of the implementation of lockdowns, social distancing, and the cancellation of blood drives due to COVID-19. However, the need for blood continues despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

During my own recent visit to donate, I was extremely happy to learn from the staff that despite the strict national measures put in place to contain the spread of COVID- 19, donation levels in Eritrea continued to remain at relatively high levels over the past several months. In addition to the strong communal bonds, solidarity, and altruism among the population, a key contributing factor was that the Eritrean government and health officials took into account the essential nature of donating blood and kept donation sites open under safety guidelines. However, moving forward, high levels of voluntary donation must be maintained (or even increased) in order to help prevent a blood shortage in the country. In the following paragraphs, I will briefly outline the general process of donating blood locally and also review some of the important reasons for donation.

To begin, as noted above, the need for blood is constant, which makes blood donation absolutely vital. Since blood can only be stored for a limited time before use, regular blood donations by a sufficient number of healthy people are needed to ensure that safe blood will be available whenever and wherever it is needed. Notably, during the COVID-19 global pandemic, blood donation has become even more essential because many people may be less inclined to donate blood.

Donated blood is often described as “the most precious gift” because it helps to save lives and to improve health. For instance, blood transfusions that become possible through donation are required for: women with complications of pregnancy, such as ectopic pregnancies and hemorrhage before, during or after childbirth; children with severe anemia often resulting from malaria or malnutrition; people with severe trauma following human-made and natural disasters; many complex medical and surgical procedures (e.g., heart surgery and organ transplants); those battling cancer or other life-threatening conditions; and those with conditions such as thalassemia and sickle cell disease.

Unfortunately, every year, many people around the world, including in our own country, die or suffer unnecessarily because they do not have access to safe blood.

Second, donating blood is something that is quick, easy, and safe. My own recent visit to the National Blood Bank lasted about 1 hour in total – from my first steps into the facility to later polishing off the snacks and drinks in the small waiting room at the end. (The actual blood donation time lasts only about 10 minutes.) Throughout my visit, all of the staff members at the facility were very warm and friendly, while the highest standards of professionalism, safety, and infection control were dutifully followed. Importantly, all of the health workers are well-trained and highly experienced.

Prior to donating, all potential donors must undergo an initial physical examination. This brief examination includes checking weight, body temperature, pulse, and blood pressure, as well as measuring hemoglobin level to ensure that it is adequate. (Hemoglobin, or “Hb”, is a protein found in the red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body and gives blood its red color.) After answering a series of questions (mainly about medical conditions and history, medications, and lifestyle), those who are deemed eligible may then proceed to donate blood while being closely watched over by a trained health worker. First, a small area of your arm is wiped clean and then a sterile needle is inserted.

Although when the needle is first inserted one may feel a slight bit of discomfort, there is no pain or discomfort while the blood is actually being drawn. Health workers remain on hand to keep donors calm and relaxed; during my own donation process, the health workers and I debated football tactics and chatted about the weather. Finally, when the blood donation is fully complete, donors are guided to a small waiting area, where they are monitored by staff and provided with snacks and drinks to ensure proper recovery and fluid uptake.

While concerns related to COVID- 19 may dissuade some potential donors, the entire process remains safe and there are no confirmed reports of coronavirus being transmitted by blood transfusion anywhere in the world. Importantly, the National Blood Bank in Eritrea has taken additional measures to ensure that blood donation in the country can continue in a safe manner for donors, blood supply, and recipients. This includes strict guidelines for physical distancing, including increased space between chairs or beds, and various hygiene measures, such as initial screening of donors upon arrival at the facility, wearing of gloves and masks, establishment of numerous hand-washing stations, use of alcohol-based hand disinfectants and sanitizers, and wiping down of all surfaces after every donation. Needless to say, all of this was very reassuring to see and at no point during my visit did I become uncomfortable or feel at risk.

Importantly, alongside the considerable benefits for recipients, blood donation provides donors with an array of significant personal benefits. For instance, in addition to the snacks and drinks provided at the end, the brief physical examination at the beginning of the donation process can provide useful insights about your health and help to detect health problems or risk factors for certain diseases. As well, blood is tested for several infectious diseases, such as HIV.

Donating blood regularly also may lower iron stores, which may reduce the risk of heart attack. (High body iron stores are believed to increase the risk of heart attack.) Moreover, the blood donation process may decrease the risk of developing cancer and contribute to a general improvement in cardiovascular health. Finally, donating blood is an act of solidarity and generosity that can provide one with a genuine sense of satisfaction through knowing that they are helping to make a positive and significant difference in someone else’s life.

Blood donation is a key and indispensable component of health care. It contributes to saving lives, permits increasingly complex medical and surgical interventions, and dramatically improves the life expectancy and quality of life of those with a variety of acute and chronic conditions. As the COVID- 19 pandemic has continued to unfold, the need for blood donation, both in Eritrea and around, has only grown. May all of us who are generally healthy and capable of doing so be ready and willing to donate.

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