World Blood Donor Day 2021 – Promoting blood donations in Italy

Giuseppe Mangiaracina

“When I think about why I donate blood, I ask myself a very simple question: ‘If I was on the other side and was in serious need of a blood transfusion, wouldn’t I hope someone had donated that blood for me?’ I have been donating blood since I was 18 and although it is a simple gesture for me, I know it is one that goes a long way for those who need it.”

This is how 31-year-old Giuseppe Mangiaracina, a painter and artist living in Milan, Italy, sees his regular blood donations at the local hospital.

“When I tell my friends to go and donate blood, I always remind them that it’s a very simple procedure, it takes very little time, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to contribute to our health system and to the health of people who might someday need blood to survive.”

Based on 2020 global data, nearly 120 million units of blood are donated every year, with 40% of these being collected in high-income countries. Between 2013 and 2018, WHO reported an increase of 7.8 million blood donations from voluntary, unpaid donors. However, this is not enough to meet the global need of many patients requiring a transfusion.

Blood donors, donor associations and national health systems

Every year on 14 June WHO marks World Blood Donor Day to raise awareness of the need for safe blood and blood products for transfusion, while emphasizing the crucial contribution that voluntary, unpaid blood donors like Giuseppe make to national health systems.

In 2021, WHO designated Italy as the host of World Blood Donor Day, with the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS) leading activities for the global event.

“As the national blood donation authority, we oversee all data from donors and recipients to ensure we are able to track, day-by-day, if anything new emerges in the field of blood safety,” explains Dr Vincenzo De Angelis, Director of the National Blood Centre at the ISS. “At the same time, we work in very close collaboration with voluntary blood donor associations. Associations such as the Red Cross or AVIS, for example, play a very important role as part of this national system, because they help identify and retain donors and actually collect blood themselves.”

Dr De Angelis says that in many of Italy’s regions, up to 50% of blood donations are carried out by donor associations. “They serve a crucial role in our national transfusion system.”

WHO’s campaign this year focuses on the importance of giving blood to “keep the world beating,” highlighting the essential contribution that blood donors make to keeping the world pulsating by saving lives and improving the health of others.

This year’s campaign shines a spotlight on the role of young people specifically, and the role they can play in ensuring a safe blood supply. Giuseppe says that his friends and networks have always been supportive of his regular blood donations, but he admits that the vast majority of them are not blood donors yet.

“I think most of them just don’t think about it as part of their daily life, so perhaps we need more public information campaigns, more awareness raising in schools and neighbourhoods, encouraging young people to become more aware of this phenomenon,” he says.

Donating blood during a pandemic

To ensure that everyone who needs safe blood has access to it, all countries need voluntary, unpaid donors who give blood regularly. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, despite limited mobility and other challenges, blood donors in many countries have continued to donate blood and plasma to patients who need transfusion.

This extraordinary effort during a time of unprecedented crisis highlights the essential role of well-organized, committed, voluntary, non-remunerated blood donors in ensuring a safe and sufficient blood supply during normal and emergency times.

In the Italian context, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an important effect on the way national authorities and donor associations manage blood donations.

“The need to protect both donors and staff from the risk of COVID-19 transmission urged us to implement policies and systems in place that increased the efficiency of our blood donation system,” explains Dr De Angelis. “Whereas in pre-COVID-19 times, donors often experienced long waiting times when coming to a blood donation centre, we now have an efficient scheduling system that helps avoid overcrowding and ensures that a donor can be in and out in less than 40 minutes.”

Blood and plasma

Plasma is the liquid portion of blood and makes up about 55% of our blood. The remaining 45% is made up of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets that are suspended in the plasma. Plasma is used to increase a patient’s blood volume, which can prevent shock, and helps with blood clotting. Plasma is also used to make treatments for bleeding and immunity disorders.

Plasma donations are in short supply globally; donations from blood type AB are particularly needed as this can be given to any blood group.

“When talking about blood donations,” says Dr De Angelis, “we rarely mention the importance of donating plasma. Plasma is part of blood, and it is equally important, also because it is the source of many different plasma-derived medicinal products.”