Today is October 1, National Blood Donation Day. And while for many it may be another day on the calendar, for those whose lives these donors have saved, it is a day to stand up and salute them.

And while there are blood donors, the number is significantly low when compared to the need. “It is known as the gift of life, yet people seldom give blood donation a thought until they require blood for their friends or family. And even then, once they receive the blood required, very few are motivated to donate blood themselves,” says K.P. Rajagopalan, general secretary, All Kerala Blood Donors Society. He cites a lack of awareness in the community as a reason.

“People fear it is painful and that it could be harmful to health,” says Rajagopalan. A man who has donated 99 times, Rajagopalan says it is neither. “In fact, I would gladly make it a century but I have been recently diagnosed with diabetes so I have to stop.”

It was in 1973 that Rajagopalan first started donating blood. “An acquaintance asked me if I would donate blood for a child. I did. When I realised that blood is indeed an elixir, I never looked back.” He joined Dr. Jayaprakash of Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Sciences and Technology who was part of a voluntary blood donation movement.

As one man does not make an army, in order to spread the word, he started voluntary blood donors units at University College and Law College. “Those were the days when the Kerala government gave remunerations to blood donors. Blood donation was a business and it operated almost mafia-like, with agents et al. The government did stop such remunerations, however.”

And a good thing too, feels K. Mohandas, project officer at Centre for Adult Education. “Giving blood should be voluntary; after all it is for a good cause.” Mohandas too is a regular donor and has donated his blood 77 times.

The youth, he says is the key to increasing blood donors; they should be educated on the importance of blood donation. “It should be driven into them. We have college students donating blood once or twice and then stopping once they enter a work place. True, our lives are extremely fast paced but I'm sure you can stop to give your blood once every three months.”

Women, says Mohandas are more willing donors than men, but, unfortunately, most of them are clinically anaemic due to lack of a proper diet. “Women need a blood count of 12.5 to donate their blood,” says Anitha Kumari S., junior research person, Kerala Mahila Samakhiya Society, who has donated her blood 27 times. “Women always put other members of the household first before it comes to them, especially food. They often save the best portions for the rest of the family. Watching what they eat also affects their blood count,” she adds. Anitha is part of a project in her panchayat, Manikal, where she educates women on the importance of maintaining a proper diet.

Eat right

“The women of Manikal, are mostly labourers. When we spoke to them about voluntary blood donation, most of them were willing to become regular blood donors. Unfortunately the first time we took them to a blood drive, more than a quarter were anaemic. That is when we started the ‘eat right' drive. There is a 50-year-old woman in our regular group of donors who dines on ragi regularly in order to increase her haemoglobin level so that she may donate blood. We have quite a large number of women donors from Manikal now.”

A regular bank of voluntary blood donors is important, according Mohandas. “You need a group of people who you can count on. Voluntary donors are also routinely checked for diseases, like Hepatitis B, HIV, and Malaria, for instance, so the donated blood is safer. However, the need for such people is high, so hopefully more people will come forward soon.”