SANBS maintains its safety record

THE South African National Blood Service (SANBS) invited the media to an exclusive tour of its laboratory, which runs world-class quality systems to ensure a safe blood supply despite South Africa’s challenge with a high prevalence of HIV and rates of hepatitis B and C infection.

This was an informative and interesting tour as there was an opportunity to see how Africa’s leading blood service maintains a good blood safety record to the benefit of those who are in need.

Approximately nine million units of blood have been donated over a 10-year period. During this time, there has been only one confirmed case of HIV acquired through transfusion and two instances of hepatitis B.

Confronted with the world’s most serious HIV epidemic and high national rates of hepatitis B and syphilis, SANBS has maintained an outstanding record of safe blood transfusions over the past decade.

KwaZulu-Natal is one of the eight provinces that SANBS serves and it contributes 16.5 percent of the 800 000 units of blood collected from donation drives nationwide each year. This blood is processed to derive various blood products and, on average, each unit benefits three people in need of blood products.

“The demand for blood is substantial and the availability of safe blood saves hundreds of thousands of lives each year,” said Ravi Reddy, SANBS chief operations officer.

“The risks related to transfusion are tiny but we still have a duty to be transparent and to inform the public that blood transfusion is not 100 per cent risk-free. We have an equal duty to put things in perspective and say – without hesitation – that blood transfusion is life-giving and people would be unwise to refuse it because of a remote chance of infection.” said Reddy.

At SANBS, every unit of blood donated is tested individually for the presence of HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and syphilis. If infection is detected, the blood is discarded.

For the last decade, SANBS has used state-of-the-art testing technology, known as nucleic acid amplification testing (NAT), to detect these common pathogens. The advantage of NAT is that it identifies the presence of pathogens at a much earlier stage than other forms of testing.

“This reduces the length of window period – the period soon after infection when the presence of the virus or bacterium cannot be detected in the blood but it is already capable of being transmitted. SANBS has come very close to achieving a perfect record in protecting against HIV and hepatitis B, however – as with other similar quality checking systems – our safeguards have occasionally been inadequate. Each of these cases has been carefully investigated with a view to identifying and strengthening any weak points in our system.

“The NAT method has narrowed the risky window period considerably and boosted blood safety, but it has not eliminated the window period entirely,” said Reddy.

“That is where our relationship with our donors takes over. We invest in the screening, education and retention of donors. Our repeat donors become well-informed about situations that put them at risk of common infections and we ask them to delay donating blood for the length of the window period if there is even a chance that they could have been exposed to infection,” he added

SANBS does constant research to improve blood safety.

Sanelisiwe Tsinde

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