Opinion: A call to arms as demand for plasma soars

Opinion: A call to arms as demand for plasma soars

It was only in 2018 when news broke globally of the world’s greatest blood plasma donor – Australia’s James Harrison. News networks across the globe scrambled to interview the man with the “golden arm” who made more than 1000 plasma donations and helped save the lives of more than two million babies.

James was one of Australia’s first plasma donors when an antibody discovered in his plasma became a modern medical miracle, pioneering the need for plasma-only donations in Australia.

In his 60 years of donating, he never missed an appointment, and was one of the first in an elite group of Australians who to this day donates most of the nation’s plasma.

More than half the plasma collected each year in Australia – around 400,000 donations – come from 30,000 people. On average, they give 12 donations every year, and their plasma is used to make 2,500 transfusions and treatments given every day to patients.

Thanks to these remarkable donors, Australia is a world leader in plasma collection and has one of the strongest groups of voluntary plasma donors in the world. But even that is not enough.

Today, plasma is a global precious health resource, containing dozens of antibodies and proteins that cannot be replicated inside a lab. More than 50 serious medical conditions are now reliant on plasma as part of treatment.

Plasma is a yellow liquid that makes up about half of our blood. Its antibodies help people with faulty immune systems by passing on the body’s “armour” to prevent diseases and infections. It has proteins that can help stop blood loss, is used in complex heart surgery, and to treat brain disorders. Cancer patients often rely on plasma and plasma medicines during treatment, and it is even the source of Anti-D Immunoglobulin which prevents serious complications in pregnancy for women who have a negative blood type.

The demand for plasma medications in Australia is soaring. This is being driven by more accurate diagnoses of treatments, plasma products being prescribed to treat more conditions, and because we’re lucky enough in Australia to have a healthcare system that gives us access to them.

This is only possible because of donors, like James, who give so generously for others. However, we don’t need all our donors to be like James.  If one per cent more of the population was to make just two or three plasma donations every year – we would be able to meet current demand. One in three of us will need blood or plasma products during our lives, but only one in 30 donates. I hope this International Plasma Awareness Week that more people will roll up their sleeves, and in doing so, know they may be helping a stranger or indeed a loved one, now or in the future.