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More than just a blood bank

More than just a blood bank: plasma donations are saving lives

First published in The Star Late Edition, 8 Jun 2021


Rapodile is a lead consultant in training, education and advisory services at the SANBS.

SINCE 2001, the South African National Blood Service (SANBS) has been synonymous with blood donation drives and educating the public about the precious life-saving resource that is blood.

However, our function stretches beyond this. In addition to collecting 3 000 units of blood day, the SANBS is ramping up eff efforts to collect more blood plasma, needed to treat people with a wide range of conditions requiring clotting factors support. This includes the treatment of coagulation disorders like haemophilia, trauma patients who experience massive haemorrhaging and neonates with significant risk of bleeding out.

Plasma is the liquid component of blood that contains antibodies, clotting factors and other proteins and makes up 55% of the body’s blood volume. It is essential to saving lives.

Many people may think that donating plasma is complex and different, but donating plasma is similar to donating blood. It requires that blood be drawn from your body and processed through a machine that separates and collects the plasma. The other components of the blood, such as the red blood cells, are then returned to your body.

At the SANBS, we are committed to innovative treatments that enhance patient care, and have found other uses for plasma. This includes serum eye drops (SED) that have proved to be beneficial to hundreds of South Africans suffering from eye disorders.

The eye drops closely resemble natural tears and aid the repair of damage to the eye sur-face and improve symptoms associated with dry-eye disease. One donation of plasma produces up to 34 bottles of SED, which has been extremely valuable to patients.

The SANBS also supplies blood plasma to several biomedical companies for research. For example, when blood is tested using nucleic acid amplification technology, these are high-performance tools for rapidly and accurately detecting infectious agents, and the presence of certain viruses is detected; the plasma is made available to these companies to further their research in these diseases.

At the start of the pandemic, it was considered that plasma might be useful in the fight against COVID-19. Scientists at the SANBS, like others across the globe, began studies to determine whether convalescent plasma could be used to treat COVID-19 patients.

The SANBS conducted its study on convalescent plasma to assess whether infusing plasma that has antibodies against COVID-19 would provide passive immunity to the patient and improve their clinical course and outcomes. The study was halted when Covid-19 began to mutate and it became clear that antibodies against the old variant would not be effective against the new variant.

Despite the complex nature of the COVID-19 variants, scientists continue to study convalescent plasma and other possible therapies.

Group AB donors are the ideal plasma donor. First, their plasma can be given to any blood group patient (they are universal plasma donors). Second, converting AB donors does not negatively impact the blood supply as group AB patients can receive blood from any blood group.

Thus, the SANBS encourages South Africans to start and then continue to donate plasma regularly. Those who are blood group A and AB and between the ages of 18 to 65 years are eligible to donate plasma every two weeks, to a maximum of 24 times a year.