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Blood safety and availability

Fact sheet N°279
Reviewed June 2015

Key facts

  • Of the 108 million blood donations collected globally, approximately half of these are collected in the high-income countries, home to 18% of the world’s population. This shows an increase of almost 25% from 80 million donations collected in 2004.
  • In low-income countries, up to 65% of blood transfusions are given to children under 5 years of age; whereas in high-income countries, the most frequently transfused patient group is over 65 years of age, accounting for up to 76% of all transfusions.
  • Blood donation rate in high-income countries is 36.8 donations per 1000 population; 11.7 donations in middle-income and 3.9 donations in low-income countries.
  • An increase of 8.6 million blood donations from voluntary unpaid donors has been reported from 2004 to 2012. In total, 73 countries collect over 90% of their blood supply from voluntary unpaid blood donors; however, 72 countries collect more than 50% of their blood supply from family/replacement or paid donors.
  • Only 43 of 156 reporting countries produce plasma-derived medicinal products (PDMP) through the fractionation of plasma collected in the country, whereas the majority of the other 113 countries import PDMP from abroad.

National blood policy and organization

Blood transfusion saves lives and improves health, but many patients requiring transfusion do not have timely access to safe blood. Providing safe and adequate blood should be an integral part of every country’s national health care policy and infrastructure.

WHO recommends that all activities related to blood collection, testing, processing, storage and distribution be coordinated at the national level through effective organization and integrated blood supply networks. The national blood system should be governed by national blood policy and legislative framework to promote uniform implementation of standards and consistency in the quality and safety of blood and blood products.

In 2012, 70% countries had a national blood policy, compared with 60% countries in 2004. Overall, 62% countries have specific legislation covering the safety and quality of blood transfusion:

  • 81% high-income countries ;
  • 60% middle-income countries; and
  • 44% low-income countries.

Blood supply

About 108 million blood donations are collected worldwide. More than half of these are collected in high-income countries, home to 18% of the world’s population.

About 10 000 blood centres in 168 countries report collecting a total of 83 million donations. Collections at blood centres vary according to income group. The median annual donations per blood centre is 3100 in the low- and middle-income countries, as compared to 15 000 in the high-income countries.

There is a marked difference in the level of access to blood between low- and high-income countries. The whole blood donation rate is an indicator for the general availability of blood in a country. The median blood donation rate in high-income countries is 36.8 donations per 1000 population. This compares with 11.7 donations in middle-income countries and 3.9 donations in low-income countries.

75 countries report collecting fewer than 10 donations per 1 000 population. Of these, 40 countries are in WHO’s African Region, 8 in the Americas, 7 in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, 6 in Europe, 6 in South-Eastern Asian and 8 in the Western Pacific. All are low- or middle-income countries.

Blood donors

Age and gender of blood donors

Data about the gender profile of blood donors show that globally 30% of blood donations are given by women, although this ranges widely. In 20 of the 111 reporting countries, less than 10% donations are given by female donors.

The age profile of blood donors shows that more young people donate blood in low- and middle-income countries, proportionally than in high-income countries (see Figure 1). Demographic information of blood donors is important for formulating and monitoring recruitment strategies.

Types of blood donors

There are 3 types of blood donors:

  • voluntary unpaid;
  • family/replacement; and
  • paid.

An adequate and reliable supply of safe blood can be assured by a stable base of regular, voluntary, unpaid blood donors. These donors are also the safest group of donors as the prevalence of bloodborne infections is lowest among this group. World Health Assembly resolution (WHA63.12) urges all Member States to develop national blood systems based on voluntary unpaid donation and work towards the goal of self-sufficiency.

Data reported to WHO shows significant increases of voluntary unpaid blood donations in low- and middle-income countries:

  • An increase of 8.6 million blood donations from voluntary unpaid donors from 2004 to 2012 has been reported by 162 countries. The highest increase of voluntary unpaid blood donations is in the South-East Asia (78%) and African (51%) Regions. The maximum increase in absolute numbers was reported in the Western Pacific Region.
  • 73 countries collect more than 90% of their blood supply from voluntary unpaid blood donations (38 high-income countries, 26 middle-income countries and 9 low-income countries). This includes 60 countries with 100% (or more than 99%) of their blood supply from voluntary unpaid blood donors.
  • In 72 countries, more than 50% of the blood supply is still dependent on family/replacement and paid blood donors (8 high-income countries, 48 middle-income countries and 16 low-income countries).
  • 25 countries still report collecting paid donations in 2012, around 1 500 000 donations in total.

Blood screening

WHO recommends that all blood donations should be screened for infections prior to use. Screening should be mandatory for HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and syphilis. Blood screening should be performed according to the quality system requirements.

  • 25 countries are not able to screen all donated blood for 1 or more of the above infections.
  • Irregular supply of test kits is one of the most commonly reported barriers to screening.
  • 97% blood screening laboratories in high-income countries are monitored through external quality assessment schemes, as compared to 33% in middle-income countries and 16% in low-income countries.
  • The prevalence of transfusion-transmissible infections (TTI) in blood donations in high-income countries is considerably lower than in low- and middle-income countries (Table 1).
Table 1. Prevalence of TTIs in blood donations (Median, Interquartile range (IQR)), by income groups

High-income countries 0.002%
(0.0004%-0.02%) (0.008% - 0.24%) (0.004% - 0.22%)
Middle-income countries 0.12%
(0.03% - 0.2%) (0.19% - 2.33%) (0.13% - 0.71%)
Low-income countries 0.85%
(0.48% - 2.0%) (2.01% - 6.08%) (0.63% - 1.96%)

These differences reflects the variation in prevalence among population who are eligible to donate blood, the type of donors (such as voluntary unpaid blood donors from lower risk populations ) and the effectiveness of the system of educating and selecting donors.

Blood processing

Blood collected in an anticoagulant can be stored and transfused to a patient in an unmodified state. This is known as ‘whole blood’ transfusion. However, blood can be used more effectively if it is processed into components, such as red cell concentrates, platelet concentrates, plasma and cryoprecipitate. In this way, it can meet the needs of more than one patient.

The capacity to provide patients with the different blood components they require is still limited in low-income countries: 45% of the blood collected in low-income countries is separated into components, 80% in middle-income countries and 95% in high-income countries.

Supply of plasma-derived medicinal products (PDMP)

World Health Assembly resolution (WHA63.12) urges Member States to establish, implement and support nationally-coordinated, efficiently-managed and sustainable blood and plasma programmes according to the availability of resources, with the aim of achieving self-sufficiency. It is the responsibility of individual governments to ensure sufficient and equitable supply of plasma-derived medicinal products namely immunoglobulins and coagulation factors, which are needed to prevent and treat a variety of serious conditions that occur worldwide.

43 countries (23 high-income, 18 middle-income, 2 low-income) of the 156 reporting countries, reported producing all or part of the PDMP through the fractionation (e.g. domestic or/and contract fractionation) of plasma collected in the country.

  • 35 of the 43 countries report plasma fractionation carried out within the country.
  • 8 of the 43 countries report plasma sent for contract fractionation in another country.

95 countries report that all PDMP are imported: 15 countries report that no PDMP were used during the reporting period; 3 countries report that plasma collected in the country was sold to the manufacturers of plasma-derived medicinal products and products purchased from PMDP suppliers in the market.

Around 10 million litres plasma from 35 reporting countries (22 high-income countries, 12 middle-income countries and 1 low-income countries, covering a population of 2.76 billion) was fractionated for the production of PDMP during the year. This includes around 50% plasma recovered from the whole blood donations.

Clinical use of blood

Unnecessary transfusions and unsafe transfusion practices expose patients to the risk of serious adverse transfusion reactions and TTI. Unnecessary transfusions also reduce the availability of blood products for patients who are in need.

WHO recommends the development of systems to monitor and improve the safety of the transfusion process such as hospitals transfusion committees and haemovigilance.

  • 111 countries have national guidelines on the appropriate clinical use of blood.
  • Transfusion committees are present in 70% of the hospitals performing transfusions in high-income countries and in about half of the hospitals in middle- and low- income countries.
  • Clinical audits are conducted in 89% of hospitals performing transfusion in the high-income countries and in 52% of hospitals in the middle- and low- income countries.
  • Systems for reporting adverse transfusion events are present in 93% of hospitals performing transfusion in high-income countries and 63% in middle- and low- income countries.
  • 77% high-income countries have a national haemovigilance system, compared to only 30% of middle- and low- income countries.

Blood transfusions

There are great variations between countries in the age distribution of transfused patients. For example, in the high-income countries, the most frequently transfused patient group is over 65 years, which accounts for up to 76% of all transfusions. In the low-income countries, up to 65% of transfusions are for children under the age of 5 years.

In high-income countries, transfusion is most commonly used for supportive care in cardiovascular surgery, transplant surgery, massive trauma, and therapy for solid and haematological malignancies. In low- and middle-income countries it is used more often to manage pregnancy-related complications and severe childhood anaemia.

WHO response

The risk of transmission of serious infections, including HIV and hepatitis, through unsafe blood and chronic blood shortages brought global attention to the importance of blood safety and availability. With the goal of ensuring universal access to safe blood and blood products, WHO has been at the forefront to improve blood safety and availability, and recommends the following integrated strategy for blood safety and availability:

  • Establishment of a national blood system with well-organized and coordinated blood transfusion services, effective evidence-based and ethical national blood policies with the goal of achieving self-sufficiency, and legislation and regulation, that can provide sufficient and timely supplies of safe blood and blood products to meet the transfusion needs of all patients.
  • Collection of blood, plasma and other blood components from low-risk, regular, voluntary unpaid donors through the strengthening of donation systems, the phasing out of family/replacement donation, the elimination of paid donation, and effective donor management, including care and counselling.
  • Quality-assured screening of all donated blood for transfusion-transmissible infections (TTI), including HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and syphilis, confirmatory testing of the results of all donors screen-reactive for infection markers, blood grouping and compatibility testing, and systems for processing blood into blood products (blood components for transfusion and plasma derived-medicinal products), as appropriate, to meet health care needs.
  • Rational use of blood and blood products to reduce unnecessary transfusions and minimize the risks associated with transfusion, the use of alternatives to transfusion, where possible, and safe and good clinical transfusion practices, including patient blood management.
  • Step-wise implementation of effective quality systems, including quality management, standards, good manufacturing practices, documentation, training of all staff and quality assessment.

Through its Blood and Transfusion Safety programme, WHO supports countries in developing national blood systems to ensure timely access to safe and sufficient supplies of blood and blood products and good transfusion practices to meet the patients’ needs. The programme provides policy guidance and technical assistance to countries for ensuring universal access to safe blood and blood products and work towards self-sufficiency in safe blood and blood products based on voluntary unpaid blood donation to achieve universal health coverage.

Data source: This fact sheet is based on the data obtained through the WHO Global Database on Blood Safety (GDBS) for the year 2012 which were reported by 100 countries. To give a more complete overview of the global situation, data for the year 2011 have been used from 68 countries and data for the year 2010 have been used from 11 countries, where current data are not available. Overall, responses received from 179 countries cover 98.6% of the world’s population.