“About one in three people will need blood or a blood product in their life, but only 1 in 30 actually donate blood – a figure that we must do something to help improve.” – Dr Duncan Jefferson
In 1797 George Washington had been out riding in the snow and subsequently developed a fever and chest infection. The standard medical treatment of the era was “blood-letting” whereby a vein was cut and blood flowed out into a bowl. How much was “let” was up to the discretion of the treating doctor. Unfortunately, George Washington died from the effects of his treatment the following day aged 67, but “blood-letting” was to live on for another 100 years before it was finally discredited by 19th century scientists.
Although in use for over 2,000 years, blood-letting was in fact, life-threatening and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the life-giving power of blood transfusions was harnessed with the discovery by Dr Karl Landsteiner in 1901 of the different major blood types that we inherit from our parents: A, B, AB and O.
Dr Karl Landsteiner
The second breakthrough was discovering how to stop blood coagulating. As we all know, when you cut yourself the blood will eventually clot and stop bleeding within a few minutes. In order to store blood and re-use it later, methods had to be developed to stop the clotting process. With the discovery of such “anti-coagulants”, and the discovery of blood groups, the way was now open for doctors to replace serious blood loss and thus save lives. World War I (1914-1918) was a major stimulus for the development of a more efficient Blood Transfusion Service. At that time, fresh blood was often transfused directly from donor to recipient in the field hospitals. With the ability to store and save blood, a much wider field of potential donors was opened up to those in need.
Today, in any one person’s life about one in three people will need blood or a blood product, but only 1 in 30 actually donate blood – a figure that we must do something to help improve.
So what is in blood?
We all know that blood is red, and it’s the oxygen carrying red cells that give it this colour. But the red cells only make up a part of what we call blood. Other cells within the blood are white cells, which are vital for defending our bodies against potential infections, and platelets, which are tiny cells that literally pour into any cuts or breaks and form a physical plug to stem bleeding. Without these tiny but essential cells we could literally bleed to death from even the most innocuous injuries.
But it’s not just cells that are in the blood, the majority of it is made up of plasma, a straw-coloured fluid that contains vital blood clotting chemicals as well as nutrients and proteins essential for our immune system and a healthily functioning body. In fact from plasma, the Red Cross Transfusion Service can make 17 different products!
Who needs your donation?
When it comes to Blood usage we immediately think of trauma victims - those involved in motor vehicle accidents - and those who need it for surgical procedures. But it is people with cancer, blood diseases and anaemia who are the biggest benefactors of red blood cells with 53% of donated red blood being used in their treatment. Routine surgery for heart disease, hip and joint replacements and burns also benefit from a donors gift of blood.
Plasma is vital for those with burns and blood diseases. Burns victims in particular can leak litres of protein rich plasma from the raw exposed areas very quickly and are always in desperate need of blood products in order to survive.
There are billions of platelets in a healthy person, but these cells are also “fragile” cells and can be the first to suffer when patients undergo chemotherapy for cancer. That’s why fresh platelets are needed constantly to help protect these vulnerable people from potentially life-threatening bleeds. They have to be “fresh,” as at this stage platelets can only be stored for up to 5 days.
Who can donate blood?
Here’s what the Red Cross Transfusion Service says:
“Most people are able to give blood if they:
• are fit, healthy and not suffering from a cold, flu or other illness at the time of donation or in the previous 7 days
• are aged between 16-70 years (in QLD and WA 16-17 year olds require parental consent)
• most people who weigh more than 45kg will be eligible to donate
• drink up in the 24 hours before donation, especially in warm weather and have at least 3 good-sized glasses of water/juice in the 3 hours before donating.
• eat something in the 3 hours before donating
• bring at least one form of photo identification ID.”
For further information check with their website.
We’ve come a long way in the last 100 years compared to the previous 2,000 years when it comes to understanding blood and how to replace it and not waste it. I’m positive that we still have many great advances to make, but we can’t do any of it without the generosity of blood donors.
We need you.
Article written by Dr. Duncan Jefferson. For more articles by Dr. Duncan, click here. For more information on healthcare and private health cover, visit HBF Insurance at www.hbf.com.au.
The content of these articles is not tailored for any particular individual's circumstances. The author does not take into account your physical condition, medical history or any medication you may be taking. Any advice or information provided by the author cannot replace the advice of your health care professional. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of HBF unless clearly indicated.