If you are travelling on the Kandy road by bus you may have met this person who begs for your kindness. He is a thin, average height man who might be in his mid forties. He dresses neatly, but in old clothes. He asks for money from people to support his daughter who is suffering from thalassemia. Every time he boards a bus he educates the passengers on how one gets thalassemia and the frequent need for transfusing blood in order to increase life expectancy. He expresses his heartfelt gratitude towards the blood donors and says his daughter is still alive thanks to the voluntary blood donors, not forgetting the donations he collects from passengers.

Consultant Transfusion Physician Dr. N Karunadipathy explaining why thalassemic patients have a need to transfuse blood frequently said that thalassemia is a disorder passed from parents to children through genes which affects the hemoglobin synthesizing in the body. Hemoglobin is an iron-rich protein in red blood cells which carries oxygen to all tissues of the body. Hemoglobin also carries carbon dioxide from the body to the lungs.

“Thalassemia cause the body to make abnormal red blood cells which produces abnormal hemoglobin cells which have a shorter life span than the usual,” he explained. Usually produced hemoglobin lasts for only 120 days in average. Yet, as Dr. Karunadipathy explained in a system of thalassemic, hemoglobin gets prematurely destroyed. “Therefore, they become anemic and the body functions are disturbed. They cannot survive unless they get a blood transfusion,” he further said.

Transfused blood will only remain in their bodies for less than two months. “When the normal lifespan of a red blood cell is exceeded, the transfused blood will also be destroyed due to the normal bodily functions. Hence they will need another transfusion,” he stressed. Karunadipathy said that at least 40 to 60 blood packets are used at the Kurunegala National Thalassemia Center per day.

twitterUniversity of Sri Jayewardenepura Chief Media Officer Dr. Shantha Hettiarachchi told The Nation that it’s a huge relief for the patients that they can get required blood for free since the other medical expenses are extremely high. He opined that blood transfusion service is fairly better in Sri Lanka compared with other countries.

Adding further insight on treating thalassemic patients Dr. Hettiarachchi said that in an average a thalassemic patient has to spend around ten million rupees for his or treatments during a life time. “Especially they have to spend a large amount of money on Iron Chelation Therapy,” he said. “Iron overload occurs when there is too much iron in an individual’s body. This can be a problem for people who get lots of red blood cell transfusions. Since thalassemic patients undergo transfusions frequently, iron chelation is a must for them,” he added. He further said that 100 percent of the blood requirements of thalassemia patients now come from voluntary blood donors.

Only one packet of blood is collected from a single blood donor at a time. Therefore at least 40 to 60 individuals’ blood is used daily at the center. Kurunegala is not the only place where thalassemics get blood transfusions and thalassemia is not the only disease which requires blood transfusion. According to the statistics, total annual blood requirement exceeds 300,000 units in Sri Lanka.

National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS) is the main body in Sri Lanka holding the responsibility of fulfilling this requirement. When a patient is in need of a blood transfusion, but there are no voluntary donors or blood at the National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS), family members are required to donate blood for the patient. Until mid-2014 this system was in practice. According to senior Public Health Inspector Manjula Jayaweera, since then 100 percent of blood donations have been voluntary.

The NBTS collects, processes and issues blood and is commonly known as the blood bank. While many would like to donate blood, there are certain eligibility requirements that must be met.

Once at the donation center, the donor will be given a questionnaire consisting of general questions which would determine if the donor should donate blood. A donor will not be suitable if it negatively affects his or her life or if his or her blood would negatively affect the person being given the blood. The donor will then have to speak to a doctor who will further verify if the donor is eligible for donation. The donor’s health and medical history will be checked. For instance, the donor cannot have HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B or C, Malaria or Syphilis.

A donor must be over 50kg and should be between the ages 16 and 60. The donor should also have a hemoglobin count of over 12.5g/dl. Further, an individual cannot donate blood if they have been tattooed in the past 12 months or have travelled overseas in the past three months.

In commemoration of World Blood Donor Day (June 14), the NBTS organized a program at the NBTS, Narahenpita. Meanwhile, blood donation camps had been held at the 18 regional centers the previous week and will be held in the coming week too.

Jayaweera also said that of all blood donations, only five percent are in-house donations, where donors make the donation at the NBTS. It is through mobile donation centers and social campaigns that 95 percent of the blood donations are made.

While blood donation camps are still widely popular and effective, it is interesting how social media will play a role in this endeavor.

In a post titled ‘Connecting #lka tweeps for quicker blood donation matches’ on, Gihan Fernando wrote, “You might have noticed from time to time, a few tweeting, with urgency about an individual (that’s right, not 1000’s, just one) in need of blood. Most tend to just RT and pass the information to their followers who are active at the time it is pushed out. With a deeper increase on twitter users and usage, it gives a sense of hope for matching blood types and getting at a few to donate their blood.”

As of late, Twitter users have been adding their blood type to their twitter bios. Thus a simple search of a hashtag on Twitter could save a person’s life.

While the usage of Twitter among Sri Lankans is increasing, it has many more people to reach. The web, however, is accessible to all and at one will find tweets that mentioned the blood types and accounts with the blood type in their bios.

What takes the social media campaign even further is how it connects blood donors with those who are in need of blood transfusions. Accounts like @thebloodgroup, @bloodlk and @BloodNeedSL tweet about those in need of blood transfusions and also information about blood donation camps.

Thus a simple addition to your Twitter bio could make a bigger difference than it seems it will.