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20 Years of Celebrating Giving: Thanks you, Blood Donors!

Sona Berhane

Every year on June 14th, the world celebrates World Blood Donor Day. This year marks the 20th anniversary of this important occasion, a time to reflect on achievements, address challenges, and envision a future with universal access to safe blood transfusion. The 2024 theme, “20 years of celebrating giving: thank you, blood donors!” resonates deeply in Eritrea, where, for decades, the National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS) has played a crucial role in ensuring safe blood transfusion throughout the country.

The aim of this year’s global campaign is fourfold: to recognize and thank millions of voluntary blood donors who have saved lives globally, to showcase national blood program achievements and challenges, to promote regular, unpaid blood donation to ensure universal access, and to foster a culture of blood donation among youth and the public, increasing donor pool diversity and sustainability.

The NBTS plays an indispensable role within Eritrea’s healthcare system. Established in 2002, the National Blood Transfusion Center (NBTC) serves as the central hub for the safe collection, processing, and distribution of blood products. The institution’s journey has been one of remarkable progress.

From its humble beginnings utilizing rudimentary equipment and techniques, the organization has undergone significant development. In the early 1980s, the central laboratory began storing blood in solar-powered refrigerators and implementing more advanced compatibility tests. Following Eritrean independence in 1991, a proposal was drafted to modernize the country’s blood bank services. This crucial step led to medical personnel being sent abroad in 1997 for training in advanced blood transfusion procedures.

A pivotal moment came in 2002 with the establishment of the NBTC, a new, autonomous facility dedicated to coordinating and overseeing all blood transfusion services nationwide. The following decade saw continued collaboration with the Swiss Red Cross (SRC), which played a vital role in shaping the NBTS’s current operational structure.

The NBTS adheres to strict World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, implementing WHO-based policies in 2003 to ensure safe and secure blood transfusion practices. These policies were subsequently revised in 2006 and 2011, reflecting the organization’s commitment to continuous improvement. These years witnessed a period of rapid development. The NBTS’s laboratory expands its capabilities by introducing component separation, allowing for the fractionation of whole blood into its core components – red blood cells, platelets, plasma, and cryoprecipitate. Each component has specific therapeutic applications, enabling a more targeted approach to patient care. Additionally, highly sensitive and specific ELISA diagnostic machines are incorporated to enhance the screening process for transfusion transmissible infections (TTIs) in donated blood. Furthermore, the crucial role of data and quality management systems is recognized, leading to their establishment to guarantee the continued safety and high functionality of the NBTS’s operations. The Quality Management department meticulously produces and implements essential documentation, including quality manuals, standard operating procedures, clinical guidelines, and medical criteria for blood collection. The Data Management plays an important role in ensuring the complete confidentiality of donor information while maintaining a strict and ethical code of conduct within the NBTS.

In 2007, recognizing the potential blood shortages due to the rarity of Rh-Negative blood types within the Eritrean population, the Donor Service department took the initiative to establish a dedicated Rh-Negative Donors committee. The committee focused on recruiting and retaining Rh-Negative blood donors, a group whose blood is particularly valuable for patients with the same Rh-Negative blood type. Shortly thereafter, a committee for Rh-Positive Donors was also formed, ensuring a comprehensive approach to blood donor recruitment and management. In 2011, both the Rh-Negative and Rh-Positive committees merged to form the National Voluntary Blood Donors Association of Eritrea (NVBDAE). This consolidated organization plays a critical role in raising public awareness about the importance of blood donation, actively recruiting new donors, and organizing promotional events throughout the year. The NVBDAE’s tireless campaigns have significantly increased blood donation rates by targeting many sectors, including students, youth, sports clubs, members of various government organizations, and religious institutions. Consequently, 100% of the blood donations registered in 2023 were the result of voluntary blood donations. This year, the NVBDAE is presenting the very first issue of its periodical titled “ልግሲ ህይወት” and releasing it during the World Donor Day celebrations.

In 2010 and 2013, the NBTS was inspected by the South African Bureau of Standards and, fulfilling the requirements of ISO 9001-2008, was certified and found to satisfy the required standards.

Ever since its establishment, the NBTS was set on an upward trajectory of progress and advancement. Despite the significant developments, however, challenges were encountered. Data from 2015 reveals that the annual blood collection reached only 58% of the target. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted blood donation in 2019 and 2020, leading to a near halt in transfusion services. However, the robust framework of the NBTS and strong network of voluntary donors proved invaluable. By adhering to strict COVID prevention protocols, the NBTS managed to collect around 400 units of blood during this critical time.

In 2023, a remarkable achievement was reached. The NBTS not only met its target of 12,000 units, but surpassed it by collecting over 15,000 units of blood. And in 2024, the facility was able to procure an advanced laboratory machine to aid in the sensitive process of platelet extraction.

This year’s World Donor Day celebrations, held at the Eritrean Police Force headquarters, will be a time to honor the dedication of blood donors across the country. It will also serve as a platform to highlight the ongoing challenges faced by the NBTS and encourage continued public support for this vital service.

“The NBTS has come a long way, overcoming challenges and consistently exceeding targets,” explains the facility’s medical director, Dr. Yohannes Tekeste. “This year’s celebration is a testament to the collective power of dedicated healthcare professionals, selfless blood donors, and a nation committed to ensuring the well-being of its citizens.”

Looking ahead, the NBTS remains steadfastly committed to its goals of expanding its reach and securing a sustainable blood supply for all Eritreans. Through continued collaboration with international partners and ongoing public awareness campaigns, the NBTS aims to ensure that every patient in need has access to safe blood transfusion.

As Eritrea celebrates World Donor Day 2024, the NBTS extends a heartfelt thank you to all existing blood donors, and encourages all eligible individuals to consider the lifesaving gift of blood donation. By joining this dedicated community, you can play a vital role in strengthening Eritrea’s healthcare system and ensuring a healthier future for all.

*To learn more about becoming a blood donor, or to find out more about the NBTS and its activities, please call 08214677.

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