Changing demographics suggest greater need for donor blood

Canadian Blood Services reports that every year the organization sees a two per cent increase in the demand for blood donations and approximately every minute someone in Canada is in need of blood. During the summer months, this need is amplified by changes in regular donor routines. This summer, the need for blood was particularly challenging, since events such as the Alberta floods affected the organization’s ability to hold donor clinics. The Canadian Blood Signal, an alert of the need for donations, extended to the end of the summer, broadcasting reports of dangerously low Canadian blood stores and urging Canadians to donate.

While a two per cent increase may not seem like much, it translates to a need for approximately 17 000 additional donations this year (based on 900 000 donations annually).

About half of Canadians are eligible to donate blood; however, only an estimated one in 60 do. The need for blood immediately affects many Canadians; Canadian Blood Services says 52 per cent of the population report that they or their family members have needed blood donations at one point in their lives.

The baby boomer generation remains the most loyal in terms of donating blood, while younger generations are significantly less likely to donate on a frequent basis. This statistic presents a challenge for the future of Canadian blood donation. If it continues to hold true, Canada could soon see a substantial loss in blood availability as the baby boomers age and need donated blood. Catherine Sloot of Canadian Blood Services says there is need to develop a new donor base, suggesting younger generations are the donors of the future, when older generations can no longer donate.

The need for blood increases as medical technology advances in areas such as cancer treatment. It reportedly takes an average of five donors per week to meet the need of one cancer patient.

Canadian Blood Services is a national program, meaning that lack of donations in one province directly affects the entire country (excluding Quebec, which runs a provincial blood donation program). Currently, Ontario accounts for 50 per cent of blood donations. The blood donated in Ontario is first used to supply that province and then shipped to other provinces.

To encourage donation, many countries have begun to pay donors for their services. However, Canadian Blood Service’s donors are not paid. The World Health Organization advocates against paying donors, saying that while paying donors may result in more donations, blood donation services rely on the honesty of donors on their eligibility questionnaires, and studies have shown that paid donors are more likely to lie. These questionnaires have a direct effect on the safety of donated blood. “If the motivation for you to donate blood was because you were being compensated, there is the risk of those questions not being answered truthfully,” says Sloot.

Recently, two Canadian companies have begun to pay people for the donation of plasma, the portion of the blood that transports water and nutrients throughout the body. In the U.S., plasma is converted into an intravenous drug, which helps to treat cancer and other diseases. Canadian Blood Services has no plans at this time to purchase plasma from either company.

Canadian Blood Services has strict criteria for who can donate, which exclude people who have had a recent piercing or tattoo, have used intravenous drugs, have low iron, weigh under 50 kilograms, have lived in certain regions of Africa or take insulin for diabetes. The list also includes men who have had sex with at least one man in the past five years and anyone who has received money for sex since 1977 (the year that HIV was first documented in developed countries). Until 2013, any man who had ever had sex with another man since 1977 was indefinitely excluded from donating blood or blood products.

These strict blood regulations came into place in 1985, in the wake of contaminated blood discovered in the Canadian system in the early 1980s. In what’s popularly known as the “tainted blood scandal,” many Canadians were infected with HIV and hepatitis C after being given blood or plasma from paid U.S. donors. Canada now has the scientific capacity to test each blood donation for HIV before it is given to patients.

To meet demand, Canadian Blood Services must have more donors than people in need of blood. Due to the short shelf life of blood and blood products, donations must come in regularly to keep hospitals prepared for emergencies, such as a mass collision or natural disaster.

Blood shortages are not only a Canadian issue. With medical advancements and the increased availability of medical treatment worldwide, donated blood is in high demand globally. Canada and countries worldwide are now faced with the task of determining how to properly encourage and educate, so that demand for this life-saving resource is met for years to come.

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