Coronavirus: People with thalassemia face blood shortage; appeal for blood donations

Jayashree Narayanan
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Amidst coronavirus outbreak, thalassemics are facing blood shortage concerns. (Source: File Photo)

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.

As explained by Mehta, the blood shortage needs immediate attention. "While Delhi-NCR requires more than 2,200 units daily, more than 45,000 units are needed in India for more than one lakh thalassemia major patients in the country," said Shobha Tuli, founder of Thalassemics India, which is acclaimed to be the first NGO in India that was established to fight against thalassemia.

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.

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 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.

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Time to donate blood. (Source: Thalassemics India)

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The poster have been shared as an appeal. (Source: Thalassemics India)

"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.

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 thallesemic 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.