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23 March 2004

Can Old People Donate Blood for Small Children?

Budding reporters from the online Children's University on a fact-finding mission to the Blood Donation Centre — Answers to intriguing questions

A blood bank is a mysterious thing. Why is it called "bank" although it deals with blood and not with money? And why can't you donate blood if you've just been tattooed?

Answers to these and other questions were given to Marius, Marc-André, Nathalie, Sabrina, Patrick and Stefanie, all diminutive reporters for the online Children's University, by Dr. Susanne Winteroll in person. She is the head of the Heidelberg Blood Donation Centre at Hospitalstrasse 1.

Potential donors are vetted very thoroughly. If it's their first donation they have to answer no fewer than 43 questions. "Safety first is the motto," explains Dr. Winteroll. So they have to say whether they weigh more than 100 pounds, whether they take drugs, whether in the last few years they've been to places where malaria is rampant and whether they've been tattooed or pierced in the last six months. "Dirty needles can transmit diseases," the physician explains. And no one wants that. This means that all those donors are rejected who have been to the dentist in the last seven days or who spent longer than six months in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1996. The latter group might inadvertently be carriers of mad cow disease (BSE).

Almost one-fifth of those who turn up here for the first time are rejected. Usually not for good, though. When they've shaken off their head cold and the interval between now and their last pregnancy is a little longer, then they can come back and join in again.

But the questionnaire is not all. Immediately after the donation, the blood is minutely examined. The blood type is specified and the blood itself is tested for pathogens like Aids viruses or indications of inflammation of the liver (hepatitis). Blood donors have to be adults.

"If a small child is involved in an accident, can it be given blood from an old person?" asks Marius. "No problem," Susanne Wintersoll assures him, "the blood is absolutely okay."

If there are no reservations, the potential donor's blood can in principle be taken straightaway. Before this, however, he should have a good meal, because it puts quite a strain on the body to be relieved of a pint of blood in just under 10 minutes. That's why the donation centre looks a little bit like a grocery store.

There are scrumptious cakes and a refrigerator full of drinks where the donors can help themselves. Afterwards it's a good idea to rest for half an hour, so there is ample provision for that as well.

Almost exactly as many men give blood as women, but they can donate a full pint anything up to six times a year, whereas women are limited to four donations. "Men just have more of the stuff," explains Susanne Winteroll. Nearby is the donation room, full of blue armchairs. Some of them are occupied by people with a needle in their arm attached to tubes leading to a sac. The sac swings back and forth gently. This is to ensure that the blood is properly blended with an agent preventing coagulation and ensuring that it stays fluid.

At regular intervals, the donors press a little ball, not just for the hell of it but to pump the blood out of the vein more quickly. In the lab next door, the sacs are put into a big centrifuge that whizzes the blood round and round very fast so that the red corpuscles sink to the bottom and the plasma (mostly water and protein) stays on top. Then the two components are separated and the red corpuscles enriched with nutrients. They keep for seven weeks and must not be allowed to "starve" in the meantime.

Plasma donations take place a few doors further down. Plasma can be donated much more frequently than blood. Here the donors have one needle in their left arm and another in the right. The blood flows out through a tube into a big machine that filters out the plasma and returns the rest of the blood to the body.

Plasma donations are possible as frequently as once a week. But the process takes anything up to an hour. Here too, the bigger and heavier the donor is, the quicker it takes.

Information: The website of the online Children's University is at .The address of the Blood Donation Centre is .

Kirsten Baumbusch

Please address any inquiries to
Irene Thewalt
Press Office of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542311

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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