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India: COVID-19 lockdown causes blood shortage

Most blood banks in India are running on reserves, risking another crisis

Cheena Kapoor   | 11.04.2020
India: COVID-19 lockdown causes blood shortage


Blood banks in various hospitals in India have raised concern at the decreasing blood reserves, even as the country continued to report fresh COVID-19 or coronavirus cases.

The 21-day lockdown affecting the movements of blood donors across the country has led to the shortage in availability of blood for patients, depending on transfusion as a life-saving measure. The Health Ministry on Thursday even issued an advisory calling for voluntary blood donations.

Shobhini Rajan, the director of National Blood Transfusion Council, said that a communication was received from several stakeholders engaged in managing blood centers and blood transfusion services regarding difficulties in maintaining adequate blood reserves during the period of lockdown.

In a letter addressed to blood banks and provincial governments, she has asked them to maintain adequate reserves. She said that the blood banks world over, are dependent on voluntary blood donation from healthy individuals to meet their supplies.

"Since there continues to be a demand for blood and blood components, especially for thalassemia patients, it is essential that supplies of safe blood be maintained at licensed blood centers in the country," wrote Rajan.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, she said her organization is monitoring the gap between the shortage and the requirement.

As per the government data available on the National Blood Transfusion Council website, the total donated blood has dropped from 38,189 units in February to 26,741 units in March.

Further, only 3,037 units have been received in the first 10 days of April. The number of blood donation camps have also come down from 473 in February to 46 in April so far.

"The voluntary donations have gone down by almost 100%. We receive about a million blood units a year from 89 centers in the country. Of these 52 are voluntary based donation centers, and there has been no procurement of blood," Vanashree Singh, the director of Indian Red Cross Society, told Anadolu Agency.

She said that even in-house replacement donations have also reduced by almost 50%. "For instance, in Delhi, we receive about 2,500-3,000 units a month as in-house donations, but we are now getting only 1,500 units," she said.

Decreasing blood reserves risk

More so, the blood platelets have a shelf life of only seven days, thus in absence of a continuous supply, the reserves are bound to dip.

With an entire focus on the prevention of COVID-19, doctors fear that neglect in other areas may lead to greater health risks. Hospitals these days are conducting fewer surgeries related to other ailments. With about 1.5 million cancer cases prevalent in the country, the requirement, despite a reduced demand is still high, doctors say.

According to World Health Organization standards, a country requires blood units equal to one percent of its population. Experts believe that as per these standards India is already far behind, but the lockdown has made it even worse.

Most of the government-run programs for pre-natal care have been canceled during the lockdown, leading to more risk among women, who generally receive care in these camps.

"More than half the women in India are anemic, and a majority of maternal deaths in the country are due to hemorrhage, which makes blood a critical component," Dr. Subhasri Balakrishnan, an obstetrician, representing the Coalition for Reproductive Health and Safe Abortion, told Anadolu Agency.

Doctors believe that critical COVID-19 patients may require blood as well, and decreasing stocks may add to the risk. The only recourse left is to take blood directly from the donor and transfer it to the patient. The procedure is called Unbanked Directed Blood Transfusion (UDBT), which is an illegal practice in India under the Drug and Cosmetics Rules enacted in 1945. The rules authorize the collection of blood only from licensed blood banks.

Many countries including the U.S. allow the UDBT, where family members can directly donate blood to their patients, without needing to store it first.

"We have been fighting in the Supreme Court for many years. If they legalize it, the direct transfer in these times when there is a huge shortage will help save lives," said Dr. R R Tongaonkar, a former president of the Association of Rural Surgeons of India.

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