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Australians donate blood in record numbers to meet shortfall

 An urgent call for blood has resulted in a surge in donations, beating records seen during the Bali bombings and bushfires.

Key points:

A lack of consistent donors in Australia remains a concern

Blood supplies are secure, but if the COVID-19 outbreak persists there could be challenges in securing imports of some plasma-related products

People in remote areas struggle to reach sites where they can donate

National stocks of O+ and A+ blood dropped to just two days' supply last week, prompting an urgent call from Red Cross Lifeblood for donors.

Lifeblood spokeswoman Jemma Falkenmire said last week's donation appeal led to a response even greater than during other major crises.

But despite the positive response, Lifeblood is still concerned by a lack of consistent donors.

"For us, the real challenge is that we only have one to 2 per cent of the population regularly donating," she said.

"There are around half a million people who only give once a year.

"Collectively, if those people gave twice a year it would probably mean that we wouldn't need to go into appeal."

Just how secure is Australia's blood supply?

Even with a lack of regular donors and blood stocks sometimes dropping to just a few days' supply, International Society of Blood Transfusion president Erica Wood does not see any need for panic.

"We're very fortunate in Australia; we have a safe and secure blood supply and it's been successfully maintained during the COVID pandemic through mobilising blood donors in the community," Professor Wood said.

"Having said that, the blood supply is always vulnerable and some blood products have very short storage time. For example, platelets that help the blood clot can only be stored for a few days and so that's why we need ongoing collections most days of the year."

While Australia is self-sufficient for whole blood supplies, Professor Wood points out some plasma products — such as immunoglobulin — do need to be imported from overseas.

"In the past we were self-sufficient in immunoglobulins, which are made from donated plasma, but demand has been increasing over many years and over half of these immunoglobulins are imported," she said.

"We and others are conducting research into how we could modify this clinical demand for immunoglobulin products, so we hope that all of these efforts will work together."

Pandemic may cause global shortages of some plasma products

Citi head of healthcare and biotech research, John Deakin-Bell, said Australia was somewhat exposed to global supply issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Currently we're seeing a shortage of plasma donations in the US and they supply a very large part of the end product in the US and Europe and parts of Asia," Mr Deakin-Bell said.

"If this pandemic continues for six to 12 months at the same levels as it has currently, you will get some supply issues in US, Europe and potentially Australia."

But with growing hope of a potential COVID-19 vaccine during that period, Mr Deakin-Bell did not think it was too much of a concern.

"I have a global perspective and if I'm ever going to need whole blood I'm happy to be in Australia," he said.

"So I think relative to most we've done a fantastic job compared to most other countries."

The National Blood Authority — the Government body which oversees the national supply — also insists supplies remain safe and secure, and appeals for blood donations should not be cause for concern about inventory levels.

Remoteness prevents some from donating

One hurdle for some people wanting to donate blood is often simply their location.

When the national blood supply runs low and an urgent appeal goes out for donations, people who are in remote areas, such as Carla Viskovich, cannot do much to help.

She lives in Kalgoorlie, the WA mining town of about 30,000, which does not have a blood donation centre.

"It's disheartening, to be honest, because there are so many of us that are so keen to donate — and you always hear of the shortages and obviously we'd like to do as much as we can to help out where we can," Ms Viskovich said.

Red Cross Lifeblood has 91 donor centres, along with mobile collection vans that visit 800 sites each year, but Kalgoorlie residents have to travel six hours to visit the nearest one.

"I also understand that we are so far away. It's 600 kilometres to Perth and it is difficult to transport the blood," Ms Viskovich said.

"It's just a matter of when we do come to Perth that we do hold out our arm and donate when we can, but it is very disheartening not being able to do it our town."


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