Pedestrians outside Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Hospital in Sion were witness to an unlikely sight of a 12-year-old child and her grandmother exhorting people to donate blood. Frail Mahima Kamble was forced to take this step due to acute blood shortage that patients suffering from thalassaemia are facing during the pandemic.
State Blood Transfusion Council (SBTC) norms mandate free blood supply for thalassaemia patients from any blood bank. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, however, stock at blood banks have depleted and, unlike in the past, these banks, which are mandated to provide free blood to patients like Mahima, are now asking thalassaemia patients to get their own donors in an attempt to replenish their stock.
This means that every time a patient like Mahima need a transfusion, they are forced to go looking for donors. Twice a month, the girl, who lives in a Chembur slum, starts looking for people willing to donate blood.
From 1.1 lakh blood units collected in March through donation camps, Maharashtra has come down to 99,658 units in June and 62,001 units in August, a 43.8 per cent drop. Fear of infection has also kept regular donors at bay. The dip has directly affected the state’s 9,700 thalassaemia patients.
On Thursday, the LTMG blood bank had only four units of B-positive blood. Acute shortage has forced multiple blood banks to demand a replacement donor or live donor for blood units. Although illegal, blood banks said they had no other option.
“I used to collect 450 units per month. After the pandemic, I can hardly get 250 units,” said Dr Varsha Pancholi from Triumph blood bank in Thane. She has 80 thalassaemia patients registered, who require 200 units of blood every month. She also has to cater to emergency blood requirement for accident victims, caesarean procedures and surgery patients.
“If a thalassaemia patient can’t get a replacement donor, we can’t give them blood,” she added.
Thalassaemia is a blood disorder in which the body produces less haemoglobin. Patients need regular transfusion of red blood cells, sometimes twice or thrice a month, to replenish their haemoglobin.
Eight-year-old Ravi Dixit’s limbs become stiff, he develops fever every fortnight because of this delay in transfusion. Last month, his haemoglobin levels dropped to eight. “Everyone I know has donated blood for him once. But they don’t agree to come again and again. These last six months have been a nightmare,” said his mother Ujwala.
An official from a BMC-run blood bank in the western suburbs said they had instructions from the hospital to keep some blood units reserved for emergency cases. “Even if we have blood, we are not at liberty to give them to thalassaemia patients,” the official said.
Shortage has also created business for some. Rahul Salve, who works with NGO Helping Hands, has alleged that ward boys from LTMG blood bank were demanding Rs 200 to Rs 400 for a unit of blood, when it was ideally supposed to be free. “We have come across such patients and brought this to the dean’s notice,” Salve said. JB Mantri, Joint Commissioner of Food and Drug Administration, said an inquiry will be initiated. But Dr Mohan Joshi, dean at Sion hospital, said the incident took place a year ago when a man gave a Rs 200 tip to a ward boy. Asked why thalassaemia patients were asked to get replacement donors, he said, “If we have blood, we give it; if we don’t, then we have to ask for a donor.”
As on October 14, Mumbai has 2,381 blood units left in 53 blood banks, and the state has 15,232 units in 287 blood banks. “This stock is lower than our target. We are asking blood banks to hold more camps. We are making an appeal to the public to step out and donate. It is a social responsibility,” said Dr Arun Thorat, in-charge of SBTC. He, however, said SBTC had not taken action against blood banks demanding replacement donors from thalassaemia patients.
Shubham Singh, a frequent blood donor, said, “Every day I get two to three requests. The situation is getting worse, as donors are hard to find and patients deteriorate within days if transfusion is delayed.”
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