The blood of others: donors in Germany are getting older and fewer

Despite bottlenecks in the meantime, the willingness of Germans to donate blood during the Corona years has decreased less than feared. The surges between lockdowns and times with relaxed measures are causing problems for the clinics that rely on donor blood. In the longer term, demographic trends are also a cause for concern, as reliable blood donors are getting older.

“Due to the short shelf life of the blood supplies, we are dependent on continuity when donating blood,” says Patric Nohe from the blood donation service of the Bavarian Red Cross (BRK). Bunkering or storage is not possible, the donor blood can only be used for 42 days. But whenever the incidences have fallen, significantly fewer donors have been available due to increased leisure activities.

At the same time, however, more donor blood was needed because, for example, operations that had been postponed had to be made up for. Accordingly, due to a lack of blood donations, the spokesman reports that they were not in the hard corona phase, but last summer “in one of the most precarious situations of recent years”. In Berlin, for example, blood donations were at times up to 30 percent below normal.


blood donations are used on average per day

In some regions it is still scarce. For example, the DRK blood donation service in Saxony-Anhalt, Lower Saxony, Thuringia, Oldenburg and Bremen recently complained that the need for blood preparations can already sometimes hardly be covered and that some blood groups are even “below the supply limit”. Across Germany, the Red Cross does not currently confirm a major shortage.

According to the Paul Ehrlich Institute (PEI), around 6.5 million blood donations were registered last year, including 3.7 million whole blood donations. That was around 108,000 more than in the first Corona year 2020. For the first time since 2011 – the year with the most donations – the number of whole blood donations rose again slightly in 2021. Nevertheless, there has been a continuous decline over the years, which the blood donation services had already complained about before the corona pandemic.

“We slipped into these difficult times with a relatively low level of blood supplies,” says Nohe. And then, due to the violent outbreak and the lockdown measures, the numbers went down again so sharply in the short term that the PEI, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and the Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA) urgently called for blood donations.


days Donated blood is stable

There is, they assured, “currently no indication that Sars-CoV-2 can be transmitted through blood and may be transmitted to patients by undetected infected people”. The hygiene standards also ensure that there is no increased risk of infection for donors.

At that time, a security concept was put in place and thus secured the trust of the donors, says Nohe. There was a “wave of helpfulness and solidarity” and dangerous bottlenecks were prevented. However, many mobile blood donation options have broken away. “Gymnasiums, schools, club houses – everything was tight.” The possibility for many to work in the home office further increased the difficulties.

About 75 percent of the required blood donations come from the six donation services of the German Red Cross (DRK), the rest from private or municipal institutions, donation services at hospitals or the German Armed Forces. At the end of the first Corona year, the Red Cross counted almost 3.1 million people who were willing to donate whole blood.

Among the donors are many so-called baby boomers

Patric Nohe, Blood Donation Service of the Bavarian Red Cross (BRK)

The bottom line is that there were not quite as many actual donors, because some willing people are sorted out for health or risk reasons for the donation recipients. What was striking was the literally skyrocketing number of those who decided to donate blood for the first time in view of the pandemic. In the end, the Red Cross counted almost 311,000 first-time donors. That may have been a success of the insistent campaigns – because the following year there were only 275,000.

Another problem is the increasing age of blood donors. At the Red Cross it was 45.6 years in 2021. Many so-called baby boomers are among the donors, says BRK spokesman Nohe. If this group of people falls out (and possibly increases the need for blood as patients), it could become difficult. Finally, blood donors should not be older than 67. It is therefore extremely important “that a new generation is now moving up”.


Years was the average donor age in 2021

There is a high sensitivity to the topic among young people, says Nohe. You have to bind the occasional donors in the longer term. This requires detailed information, for example on social media, in training centers and universities. After all, everyone can find themselves in situations in which their own life depends on the right blood supplies, says Nohe. According to statistics, 80 percent of Germans need a blood donation once in their life.

In total, an average of 15,000 blood donations are needed every day. Blood group AB is the most popular. Only four percent of the population have AB positive, and only one percent have AB negative. Most frequently there is A positive (37 percent) followed by blood group 0 (35 percent). Anyone who has the latter is considered a universal donor. Because this blood contains no antigens, it can always be used in emergencies.

But how can a higher and, above all, more reliable willingness to donate be achieved? There is no difference in this regard between women (who are allowed to donate up to four times a year) and men (who can donate every two months because of the larger amount of blood), says Nohe. There is also no east/west or north/south divide. The only thing that is striking is that more blood is donated in rural areas than in large cities.

The Red Cross does not believe in financial bonuses for blood donors. For the blood donors, it’s about solidarity, not about making money, says the spokesman. However, there are interesting ideas according to which regular donors should receive discounts in public facilities or local transport, for example.

Blood donors should not be older than 67 years.
Blood donors should not be older than 67 years.
© Photo: PNN / Ottmar Winter

On the other hand, dealing with homosexuals willing to donate seems to be counterproductive. Since October 2017, the general blood donation ban for men who have sex with the same sex no longer applies. The rule that homosexual men may not be sexually active for at least twelve months before donating blood was also removed in October 2021.

The haemotherapy guideline now states that blood donations “four months after the end of a risky sexual behavior” are unproblematic. However, the risk of “sexual intercourse between men” is still defined differently than that of “sexual intercourse between women and men”, complains the lesbian and gay association and speaks of continuing discrimination.

“It doesn’t matter to us where the blood donors come from or who they love,” says Nohe. The guidelines are only about the protection of donors and recipients – the guidelines came from the German Medical Association. As a result, prostitutes, drug addicts and certain chronically ill people are excluded.

Even after fresh tattoos or piercings, a time interval between blood donations must be maintained. There are no lock-up periods after corona vaccinations. And even after Covid-19 diseases, blood donations are possible if you feel fit.

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