Sun. Dec 5th, 2021

The NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) launches its first national campaign calling on more people to donate plasma, which can be used to make medicines and help them with immune conditions.

The NHSBT, which hopes to more than double the number of plasma donors in London by September, has set up three donation centers in the city, two of which are located in Croydon and Twickenham.

The lack of plasma donors

In 1998, there was a ban on the use of plasma by British donors due to the risk of spreading BSE (also known as Mad Cow Disease) – which at the time had a strong presence in the country.

In April this year, after a gap of more than 20 years, plasma donation was reintroduced following the MHRA’s assurance that it could be performed safely again.

However, due to the long hiatus, it is hardly surprising that so few people know about it. According to an NHSBT survey, only 23% of the public know what plasma is, and this lack of awareness contributes to the lack of donations.

Currently there are:

  • 638 active plasma donors in Croydon, compared to the 1,050 required.
  • 1,069 active donors in Twickenham, compared to the 1,400 needed.
  • 1,035 active donors in Stratford, compared to the 1,400 needed.

So what exactly is plasma?

While most of us know blood donations, fewer people know about plasma.

Plasma is a fluid contained in our blood that makes up more than half (55%) of it, which carries platelets as well as both red and white blood cells around our bodies.

When someone donates plasma, it is used to make medicines called immunoglobulins, which are then given to help people with immune disorders. About 17,000 people a year receive these drugs.

The structure of the blood. Credit: Shutterstock

The need for British donors

SWL spoke with Dr.

Dr. Carr, 42, from Belfast, explained that due to the donation bans in the UK, the plasma product they have used for the last two decades has had to be imported from other European countries and the United States.

However, she explained that now and again, including global pandemics, there may be shortages or difficulties with supply with demand.

“Everything can affect imports, any global factor at all be it economic, be it health related, one country falls out with another and all these things affect how easy or difficult it is to import products,” she said.

“When we are dealing with products that have a major impact on people’s lives and lifestyles, we must do everything we can to improve the stability of the availability of these products.

“If we have a strong UK donor system, all these potential supply and demand difficulties from other countries will hopefully be less challenging to deal with.”

Dr. Carr also highlighted the added benefit of a reduced environmental impact by using essential plasma-based medicines produced in the UK rather than being shipped from different corners of the world.

How does plasma donation work?

Dr. Carr explained that the process of donating plasma is almost identical to the process of donating blood.

She said: “In blood donations, we take the red blood cells, which are what people need if, for example. Has had severe bleeding after surgery. But there is much more in our veins and blood vessels that plays a very active role in protecting our bodies from infection.

“So in plasma donations, we take some of the volume from your bloodstream, but give you your red blood cells back so you do not feel the same kind of fatigue that you may experience after a blood donation, and only use the plasma.

“That plasma is treated to make sure it is safe and stable, and then we use immunoglobulins, which are antibodies dissolved in our plasma, to make immunoglobulin infusions.”

Dr. Carr added that each batch of immunoglobulin infusion is made from the plasma of about 10,000 donors, providing a very wide mix of antibodies, which can then be given to the people who need it.

Plasma Donation Center

Who helps plasma?

Immunoglobulin is generally given to two sets of people.

The first consists of those who are immune deficient, such as people born with very low antibodies against being with, or people who after blood cancer or even cancer treatment are no longer able to create their own antibodies.

“If these people do not receive replacement antibodies via plasma, they will not be able to fight infection, become very ill from being exposed to simple errors and will die,” said Dr. Carr.

“But with small infusions regularly of other people’s plasma, they can fight infections almost normally.”

The second group consists of people with autoimmune diseases. In these cases, the immune system is overactive and attacks the body’s own tissues and causes damage.

Dr Carr explained: “As a neurologist, I deal mostly with immune conditions that attack the nerves or muscles in my arms and legs. The conditions I use the plasma products, the immunoglobulin for, are things like VAP and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can make people very weak and unable to move or walk.

“So for people with certain conditions, these infusions are life-saving.”

“It has helped me live a very normal life”

The SWL also spoke with Lucy Melsom-Morgan, 24, of Finsbury Park, who has a rare immune deficiency disease called Hyper IgE (also known as Job Syndrome).

Melsom-Morgan has been battling Hyper IgE since she was six months old, although the condition was not formally diagnosed until she was 19 years old.

Due to the condition, she is more susceptible to breast infections, skin infections and other internal infections like abscesses. To cope with the condition, she receives immunoglobulin infusions once a month.

She said: “I do not really go out anymore, but especially before covid I would be more likely to catch a cold while receiving my next infusion. I would feel weaker and just generally more tired and exhausted.

“But the immunoglobulin has helped me so much. It has helped me go to university, it has helped me with my year abroad, and it has helped me live a quite normal life just like any other teenager or person in their early twenties.

“So if you can donate, it’s really a great thing to do, and you help as many people as I do.”

Lucy was diagnosed with an immunodeficiency when she was just six months old
“It has helped me live a very normal life”: Lucy today

How to donate plasma

Donation centers in London are currently located in Croydon, Twickenham and Stratford.

The plasma donation process generally takes just over an hour, including a questionnaire, some basic health checks and some drinks and snacks afterwards.

Unlike blood donation, where you have to wait between 12 and 16 weeks to donate again, you can donate plasma as often as every other week.

Henry Jarvis, Twickenham Donor Center Manager, said: “Please support this campaign and donate plasma to our center – you will save lives.”

To donate plasma, visit www.blood.co.uk/plasma or call 0300 123 23 23.

Video: How to donate plasma

Selected image credit: NHSBT

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