For almost a week now, Delhi resident Komal Mehta has been making frantic calls for O-negative blood for her 16-year-old son, a thalassemia major, who requires a blood transfusion every 21 days. While his blood transfusion of two units was to take place on March 13, Mehta has not been able to procure the requisite units even after approaching Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS), Rotary Blood Bank and various NGOs. “Due to coronavirus, people have stopped donating blood and due to restrictions in place on gatherings of more than 50 people, blood donation drives are also getting cancelled. We are scared for our child. Even one unit of blood can suffice for 10 days but we haven’t been able to get that either. We might have to go outside Delhi in the coming few days if the scenario persists,” said Mehta, while adding that low levels of blood in the body will cause severe backache to her son, which will bring down his immunity.
As a genetic blood disorder caused by variant or missing genes that affect how the body makes haemoglobin, people suffering from thalassemia major require blood transfusion every month from early childhood, along with adequate iron.
Owing to shortage of B-positive blood type, 23-year-old national para table tennis player Kunal Arora was refused blood by the IRCS in Uttar Pradesh’s Moradabad. So, on March 16, he came to Delhi to arrange for blood. “While I was being offered blood from a Noida blood bank, the Delhi hospital, where I undergo the transfusion did not permit me to take the blood. Then I requested Rotary Blood Bank and finally managed to get two units blood,” Arora told indianexpress.com. A national championship, where he was scheduled to participate the following day was also cancelled due to the pandemic.
Many other thalassemics and their caregivers are facing similar struggles owing to the coronavirus scare.
Clearing the air, Dr Vanshree Singh, director, Blood Bank and Incharge of Health Programme, IRCS, NHQ said, “We are fulfilling the requirements of every patient as much as possible. Given the coronavirus concerns, we are taking adequate precautions and asking people to contact the blood bank and come and donate individually so that there is no gathering. We are even taking precautions and avoiding donations from people who have shown any symptoms of cold, cough and flu in the last three months so that there is no chance of contracting the virus.”
Country is in crisis of blood & we need blood to stay alive, plz donate blood volunteer, save Thalassemia patient.@atmukherjee @BloodDonorsIn @ThalassemiaPune @jharkhand_thal @thal_care @ravidhanani30 @drharshvardhan @MoHFW_INDIA
— PankajTS (@PankajTs) March 19, 2020
“While Delhi-NCR requires more than 40,000 units of blood in a year, in India, there are nearly one lakh thalassemia major patients who need one to three units of blood every month,” said Shobha Tuli, founder of Thalassemics India, which is acclaimed to be the first NGO in India that was established to fight against thalassemia.
#Thalassemic children, regular recipients of fresh blood at our blood bank are the worst affected.
We request you to come forward & join hands with us in this critical time of need & give them ‘The Gift of Life’! Donate blood today at IRCS NHQ, between 10 am to 6 pm. #COVID2019 pic.twitter.com/Beqyrtge0v
— Indian Red Cross Society (@IndianRedCross) March 17, 2020
The shortage is also being felt as educational institutions and universities, a major source of blood donation drives, have closed down for the time being.
Tuli further underpinned the fact that as “surgeries are getting postponed or cancelled even in reputed private hospitals like Sir Ganga Ram, New Delhi, it has led to low input of blood in private hospital blood banks. “Even thalassemics are not able to procure blood from private hospitals that is generally readily available once surgeries are carried out and can be given to thalassemics in need to maintain at least 10.5 haemoglobin levels. But due to coronavirus, even that source of blood has gone down massively,” she said.
Despite the felt need, Tuli mentioned that IRCS headquarters are doing “exemplary work in Delhi by approaching their known and regular donors by sending messages through their dedicated staff so that they can help thalassemia patients”. “It is time thalassemia patient families also try and arrange blood donors from within their families and known friends avoiding first degree relatives for their child’s blood transfusion so that they can receive blood on time,” she asserted.
While seasonal dips in blood availability are commonplace, this is the “first time” that a large number of patients and their caregivers are finding it hard which has led to various thalassemia-prevention organisations and supporters as well as IRCS to urge people to come out and donate without putting themselves or more people at any risk of contracting the virus by avoiding donations in large gatherings. Dr Singh mentioned that people can donate blood at Indian Red Cross Society or blood donation camps.
“Blood collection drives were cancelled due to the measures in place. We have identified new locations for blood donation drives like Palwal, Ganaur and Faridabad in Haryana, and Delhi where our Red Cross volunteers are motivating people to donate. They are taking adequate precautions. We are aiming to collect more than 100 units of blood daily to fulfil the requirements for not just thalassemia patients but for other requirements as well,” mentioned Dr Singh.
“The need for blood for transfusions is high. Deferring the transfusion might even prove fatal in many cases. It is not just a one-time need for thalassemics but a critical, urgent, persistent need. While general panic among people is natural even as they may be anticipating a medical need of blood in such conditions, scare-mongering has led to blood donors not coming forward to even donate,” said Priyanka Padhy, member of Patient Advocacy Group Thalassemics India and assistant professor at Lady Shri Ram College for Women.
Meanwhile, Dr Singh also said that IRCS has also requested hospitals and medical community to “rationalise the use of blood” to avoid any crisis.
Tuli mentioned that they are writing to Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for immediately putting in place a system to help thalessemic patients. “We have already put out social media pleas. What we need is an urgent action on the matter from the governments, and people’s support that can help thalassemics,” she added.
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