Padma Ranjan used to pass a blood donation center on her bus ride to work in Vancouver and wished she could donate.
Her family regularly donated blood when she was growing up in Malaysia. She moved to the United Kingdom in the late 1970s and arrived in Canada about 10 years later.
Her desire to donate blood intensified in recent years when her husband developed internal bleeding in the upper intestine and required weekly blood transfusions.
“When he first needed blood, I thought, ‘Oh my God. I could have donated,'” Ranjan, 69, said.
Ranjan’s years in the United Kingdom made her ineligible to donate to Canada due to concerns about the possible transmission of a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease – the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease”.
But last November, Health Canada authorized the lifting of the donation ban for people who lived or traveled for an extended period of time in the United Kingdom, Ireland or France in the 1980s and 1990s.
Canadian Blood Services began allowing this previously ineligible group to begin donating on December 4.
Ranjan, who is now retired, rolled up her sleeves the next day and traveled from her home in suburban Richmond, British Columbia, to the same donation center in Vancouver that she used to pass every day during his journey.
She is one of more than 4,000 people who donated between Dec. 4 and Jan. 19 after learning the ban had been lifted, Canadian Blood Services said.
This number includes both new donors and people who have attempted to donate in the past but were not eligible because they had been in the UK, Ireland or France.
“It’s a very good response,” said Ron Vézina, vice-president of public affairs at Canadian Blood Services.
The agency has set a goal of getting at least 7,000 new donors who were previously ineligible due to the ban over the next year, he said.
“We’re more than halfway there very early in the game. But that doesn’t mean giving up,” Vézina said.
An adequate blood supply requires a total of 100,000 new donors each year, he said.
“It’s a significant contributor to that, to meet demand from hospitals and patients.”
Health Canada determined that the ban could be lifted after nearly 30 years of research and monitoring, which clearly showed that people who traveled to countries affected by mad cow disease during the 1980s and 1990s could now donate blood safely, Dr. Aditi Khandelwal, medical advisor for Canadian Blood Services, said in an interview in November.
Continued donations are needed
There have been two cases of the illness in Canada, said Khandelwal, who is also a hematologist and blood transfusion doctor in Toronto.
One of them lived in the United Kingdom and the other in Saudi Arabia and consumed beef imported from the United Kingdom. Those cases occurred in 2002 and 2011, respectively, she said.
We now know that the average time between exposure and development of the disease is eight and a half years, she said, and it can be fatal in about 14 months.
That means people who lived in high-risk countries in the 1980s and 1990s would have developed the disease long before today, she said.
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An additional safeguard is the fact that white blood cells are reduced or removed from donated blood before transfusion, Khandelwal said.
Canada’s blood supply is currently “at or near optimal levels,” meaning there is a five- to eight-day supply, Vézina said.
In addition to people who were previously affected by the ban, many other people in Canada donated during the holiday season, he said.
But to maintain an adequate supply, people must make continuous donations throughout the year, because blood products are fresh and cannot be stored or stored, Vezina said.
Ranjan plans to do his part to make this happen and already has his next donation appointment scheduled for the end of February.
“I will give as much as I can, for as long as I can,” she said.
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