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A drop of life

An average of 50 blood bags are needed every day.

An average of 50 blood bags are needed every day.

Over 300,000 people in Malta can donate blood but only five per cent do. Tony Micallef explains to Ronald Cassar how this altruistic gesture can save lives.

Like air and water, blood is one of those underestimated elements whose importance is only highlighted when it is absent.

The need for blood is constant – an average of 50 blood bags are needed every day – as attested by the regular calls for blood donations issued by the National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS). Just as you are reading this article, an urgent call for ‘O Positive’ blood has been made.

Donors, including repeat ones, answer generously – an altruistic gesture which sees people giving something to the community without expecting anything in return.

The local blood bank is one of the most important institutions on the island – a pillar in the health sector which has been prominent in saving patients’ lives for more than 80 years.

Tony Micallef, a practising nurse at the NBTS, says that in the early 1930s, cases of haemorrhage started being treated with blood transfusion in Malta. But it was only in November of 1935 that the Government Gazette published for the first time a government notice urging volunteers to donate blood.

The first blood bank on the island was established in 1940 during World War II at the Bugeja Institute in Santa Venera.

“At that time, blood transfusions were carried out by giving whole blood, while the plasma was imported in dry form from Britain,” he says.

In 1948 the blood bank was transferred to St Luke’s Hospital, Pietà. Interested medical officers were sent for training abroad and F.T. Pullicino was appointed Blood Transfusion Officer.

Feel goodabout yourself, you have just saved a life

In 1956 the blood bank was relocated to the first floor of the Outpatients Department at St Luke’s Hospital to provide a more spacious accommodation, where an intensive upgrade was carried out in the late 1970s.

“Blood grouping, immu­noglobulin tests and antibody screening were introduced in 1979 while in the 1980s, blood bags were introduced instead of the non-disposal glass bottles,” remembers Micallef.

To further facilitate blood donations, in 1997, a blood mobile unit was introduced so that blood collection could take place in different localities.

In 2007 the Blood Donation Centre was finally transferred to its present location – on the opposite side of the NVTS laboratories in St Luke’s Square, Pietà.

Micallef says that last year, red cell concentrate freezing was introduced, enabling the NBTS to store a limited amount of blood for patients with rare blood groups. “Through this method, blood can be stored for at least 10 years,” says Micallef. In 1968, another blood bank was opened in St Ursula Street, Valletta, by the Maltese Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

This was relocated to the Europa Centre in Floriana in 1974 and then to St Philip Hospital in Santa Venera in 2002. It closed its doors in 2006.

The NBTS – like any other medical sector – is constantly evolving, necessitating regular developments. These include assessing the feasibility of bone banking and assuming cornea banking responsibilities.

HLA typing – used to match a donor for bone marrow or cord blood transplant – should also be implemented by 2019.

Micallef urges for more blood donors to come forward.

“The need for blood is daily and sometimes it is really hard to encourage donors to come to the Pietà blood donation centre, especially during weekdays.

“To make it easier for anybodyto give blood, the NBTS regularly organises mobile blood donation sessions at places of work and clubs.

“On Sundays, mobile blood donations sessions are organised close to parish churches and for these sessions, we have the full support of the parish priests and local councils.

“In Gozo, presently, Gozitanshave the possibility to give blood once a week at the Outpat-ients Department of the Gozo General Hospital.”

Luciano Bianco has been donating blood since he was 18.Luciano Bianco has been donating blood since he was 18.

A modern day hero

Luciano Bianco has been donating blood since he was 18. His father was also a regular donor who now cannot donate as regularly due to high blood pressure.

“My dad took me to the NBTS for the first time,” recalls Bianco, who always believed that donating blood is a very generous gesture which can save lives.

However, it was only seven years ago that he truly understood its meaning.

“My grandson underwent an operation that required significant quantities of blood to be transfused.

“Since this hit close to home, I have tried to donate every three or four months to save as many lives as possible,” he says.

From his experience, Bianco assures that the needle itself does not hurt as much as most people seem to think.

In fact, he says that, ironically, the smaller needle used to prick the finger for the hemoglobin test hurts more – and it only lasts for a fraction of a second.

“Each donation lasts approximately 15 to 20 minutes and I have never felt faint or had problems after donating.

“Being a biology teacher, I also take my students to visit the NBTS as well as the laboratory as part of their syllabus. Besides the educational element, such visits also serve to diminish some of the fear and uncertainty they may have and hopefully encourage some of them to become donors themselves.

“A significant number of them have in fact stated interest in becoming donors in the future.”

Bianco also encourages friends and colleagues to donate blood and each time he is due to donate he tries to organise a group.

Lately, he was introduced to Giacomo, a cancer patient who needs regular transfusions. This inspired Bianco to encourage a group of people to donate blood – most were first-time donors.

A cell in time…

• Last year, 22,225 people turned up to donate blood and 17,689 actually donated, an average of 61 persons donating daily. This amounted to 15,398 red cell concentrate bags, 2,390 platelets bags and 2,502 plasma bags.

• Winter (especially January) is the most critical time of the year due to an increase of common colds and other respiratory infections. Bad weather also affects donor attendance.

• In summer (especially August), the demand also becomes more acute with the increase of tourists and the heat factor, which deters donors from donating.

• Over 300,000 people in Malta can donate blood but only five per cent do.

Becoming a donor

Final eligibility determination is decided by the medical staff at the NBTS.

Identification
Identification with Maltese ID card, Maltese driving licence or Maltese passport.

Age
Between 18 years and 63 years; 17-year-olds must have parent or guardian consent. Regular donors above 63 years and under 68 years may donate, but the intervals between donations should surpass 12 months. New donors above 63 years are not accepted.

Weight
The minimum required weight is 50kg. In the case of female donors weighing between 50kg and 65kg. The minimum required weight is calculated according to the donors’ height to ensure that there is sufficient total blood volume.

Frequency of donation
Females can donate every four months (not during menses). Males can donate every three months. Females who are not menstruating may donate every three months.

Medical screening
A questionnaire is filled by the donor and then discussed with the medical officer to determine if one may donate or not. This is done under strict confiden-tiality, as donor’s honesty is very important.

Health
Donors must be in general good health and recently not suffering from any serious illness.

After donating...

On the day of your donation, avoid strenuous activity (brisk walking,  running or weightlifting). For the first three days after donating,  abstain from swimming or staying in the sun. Do not go scuba diving for a week.

Drinking
Make sure that you keep on drinking liquids regularly for the rest of the day. Avoid alcohol.

Going abroad
If you want to donate blood before going abroad make sure you come at least three days before your flight. If you had any injections before going abroad leave six months before going to donate blood and always discuss with doctors.

Others
On the day of the donation, do not use heavy machinery, avoid housework including ironing or climbing ladders. Avoid smoking during the first two hours after you donate blood.

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