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Too skinny to give blood?

Michelle Milette and colleague Bunthoeun discuss the experience of donating blood with monk Soa Say, who is having his blood collected by Yam Chhivleng from the National Blood Transfusion Centre in Cambodia. (Photo: Tiet Ho/Australian Red Cross)

The campaign to increase blood donations in Cambodia begins by understanding complex beliefs around health and personality. Communications officer Michelle Milette investigates.

The challenge

Although over 17,000 Cambodian patients receive blood each year, the pool of voluntary blood donors remains dangerously shallow.

More than 60% of donated blood comes from the families of transfusion recipients, collected quickly under emergency circumstances. For the safety of Cambodia's blood supply, there is a urgent need to increase the number of voluntary donors who are screened for high-risk behaviours and health issues.

"Our goal is to ensure sufficient and safe blood supply to patients in the country," says Dr Hok Kim Cheng, head of the National Blood Transfusion Centre (NBTC). "Our target is to reach 100% voluntary, non-remunerated blood donations."

The volunteer

Dr Cheng and his staff are embarking on a national campaign to recruit blood donors, supported by Australian Red Cross. They will be assisted by communications officer Michelle Milette, through the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, an AusAID initiative.

Michelle's Cambodian assignment is the next step in a career that spans graphic design, digital communications and journalism. "I felt I'd worked long enough in the corporate industry," she explains. "I had reached the point I wanted so it was time to try something different and give something back."

Over the next several months, Michelle will work closely with NBTC staff to establish a communications strategy, boost the centre's public profile and strengthen internal communication processes - all with the ultimate aim of increasing voluntary blood donations.

The insights

The first step is to understand why people do and don't give blood - reasons that vary greatly depending on knowledge, attitudes and behaviour.

NBTC collaborated with Australian Red Cross and Cambodian Red Cross to survey more than 1600 people across eight provinces. The survey covered representative samples of donors and non-donors, and excluded high-risk groups such as intravenous drug users, sex workers or pregnant women.

The survey provided several key insights, including:

  • concerns that donating blood would lead to losing strength or malnourishment
  • the perception that people who were 'skinny' were not eligible to donate
  • perceptions that blood was 'bought and sold', leading to a lack of trust in blood donation facilities
  • beliefs in some areas that the 'personality' exists in blood and can be transmitted to others through blood transfusion
  • people mostly heard about donating blood through family and friends
  • the majority of non-donors had simply never been asked to give blood


The next steps

Survey findings will shape an ongoing program to recruit voluntary donors. Positive steps have already been made - such as a partnership with a national radio station, whose public announcements for NBTC brought in a flood of first-time donors.

One of Michelle's first tasks is to create an online presence for NBTC, specifically to target younger and future donors. She will begin with a Facebook page and then develop a website to enable donors to book appointments online. She and her colleagues will also produce targeted information materials to address perceptions on weight, personality, strength and other issues identified in the survey. Partnerships with Cambodian creative and media agencies will be vital to ensure that local talent is applied to local contexts.

She's also working hard to learn Khmer. "If you're trying to deliver messages, understanding the cultural background and being able to learn the local language is important. It's also important for building relationships, and the stronger the relationship in this country, the more information you're able to get across."