Hundreds of people yesterday filtered through a blood-donation tent erected outside Ang Duong Hospital in Phnom Penh for World Blood Donor Day, as health officials attempted to sustain their push to encourage voluntary blood donations in a country where they remain stubbornly uncommon.
“The number of donors is still low in Cambodia compared to other countries,” said Dr Sek Mardy, the World Health Organization’s technical officer for transfusion safety, as he himself donated a unit of plasma.
In Cambodia, only 34 per cent of blood transfusions come from the blood bank supply – compared to over 90 per cent in Vietnam and Thailand – while nearly 70 per cent come from direct family-to-family donations in times of need.
Yesterday’s daylong celebration at the Blood Donation Center was intended to change attitudes towards the life-saving practice.
“Many people don’t want to donate blood because they are afraid of needles or they are afraid of the effect to their health,” Mardy said, noting that with sterile, disposable needles, the most dangerous side effects are dizziness and slight bruising.
While Australia has pledged to have full blood banks from voluntary, non-remunerated donations by 2020, Mardy said there is “no way” this is possible in the Kingdom. Blood safety only entered the national health agenda in Cambodia in the last 10 years, and Mardy believes even with full government support for medical staff, funding, and campaign outreach, it is unlikely Cambodia will surpass 60 or 70 per cent bank-based donations in the next five years.
Currently, the low donation rate creates a hand-to-mouth system. The last two weeks saw the blood bank nearly empty, and the National Blood Transfusion Centre (NBTC) was forced to issue emergency requests over Facebook and ask private sector organisations for help.
When the bank is empty, victims in traffic accidents, women in childbirth and those undergoing surgery are the most at risk of being denied blood, said Mardy. Children born with Thalassaemia, a rare blood disorder that requires bimonthly transfusions and affects 3,000 Cambodians annually, are even more underserved, according to Kristy Fleming, executive director of Voice, an NGO that runs a Thalassaemia assistance project
Health Minister Mam Bunheng reiterated the government’s support yesterday morning, calling for 10 in 1,000 people to donate – more than double current rate.
“In the future, what we want is to have all the blood come from voluntary blood donation,” said Hok Kim Cheng, director of the NBTC, which hopes to see intra-family-based donation eliminated entirely.
With 50,000 units collected in 2014 – each 350 millilitre donation can save three lives – the first five months of the year have already seen a 5 to 10 per cent spike in donations, according to Cheng.
However, Kim Cheng believes this spike is mostly due to more patients being offered more advanced treatments.
“Before we could not do heart and or kidney surgeries,” he explained.
By the end of yesterday’s drive, more than 200 new units were added to the blood bank.
“We had expected 300,” Cheng said, “But I think it was very successful.”