9 Jun 2015

NZ to import medical plasma products

12:14 pm on 9 June 2015

The Blood Service is to turn to overseas suppliers for medical plasma products that help patients fight off infection.

NZ Blood

Photo: RNZ / Gareth Thomas

It marks a significant turning point in the history of New Zealand's blood collection service.

Up until now, hospitals have been able to rely on local donors for all the plasma they need.

The demand for red blood cells has gone down, partly due to clinicians being more careful in their use, but the need for more plasma is rising as specialists find more conditions to treat.

Peter Flanagan, the medical director of the New Zealand Blood Service.

Peter Flanagan Photo: SUPPLIED

Peter Flanagan, medical director of the New Zealand Blood Service, says there is growth in the demand for plasma.

"What we're seeing currently is a very significant - and for New Zealand unusual - rate of increase in that demand.

"We've already almost doubled year on year collections but recognise if this growth is to continue we will need to probably double that again in the next one to two years in order to meet demand."

The TV and radio appeals have gone out, but plasma stocks still aren't high enough.

It's a problem made worse due to recalls in 2013 which left buffer stocks seriously depleted.

Dr Flanagan confirms plans are underway to buy products from overseas.

"We will go to a number of manufacturers of plasma products.

"We will go to manufacturers whose products are already registered and assured as safe by [medicines regulator] Medsafe and we will aim to purchase a number of thousands of vials to replace that which we would normally produce."

What is the plasma used for?

Peter Browett, specialist in haematology at the University of Auckland.

Peter Browett Photo: SUPPLIED

A NZ Blood Service board member and specialist in haematology at the University of Auckland, Professor Peter Browett, says the plasma product in need is immunoglobulin, which is used on patients with immune deficiencies to treat problems such as skin infections.

"About half the patients who are on the immunoglobulin Intragam have immune deficiencies. So these are children and adults with a congenital or a primary immune deficiency.

"So their own immune systems aren't producing enough of the antibodies."

So, does it matter that some blood products will come from outside New Zealand?

A biomedical scientist at the Auckland University of Technology, Holly Perry.

Holly Perry Photo: SUPPLIED

A biomedical scientist at the Auckland University of Technology, Holly Perry, backs the Blood Service to do the right thing.

"Whilst I think it's ideal to be self-sufficient if you can, I don't have concerns about product being sourced from other countries as long as their donor selection processes and their donor testing processes for infectious diseases are as rigourous as ours."

The New Zealand Blood Service won't say where the plasma products will come from, but it's understood Australia will be in contention to be a supplier.

Paying for plasma

Dr Flanagan says the foreign donors giving the plasma will be paid, something which doesn't happen in New Zealand.

"Those products will be manufactured from plasma that has been collected from paid donors. Nonetheless, the systems used for their manufacture assure safety and I'm sure that they will be entirely suitable for use in the New Zealand context," he said.

"It's no different to the situation that currently exists in Australia where, probably at this stage, 40 percent of their immunoglobulin is met from commercial sources.

Bringing in blood products from overseas might just be a temporary fix; it's hoped more donors will step forward and the emergency stocks can be replenished.

What is plasma?

  • Plasma is the gold coloured liquid part of blood that carries blood cells around the body and is made up of water, proteins and clotting factors, and makes up about 55 percent (men) and 60 percent (women) of your blood.
  • It is the key component in 13 different essential blood products which include important clotting factors, antibodies and albumin. These plasma-derived products are in constant demand with over 90,000 doses issued each year in New Zealand.
  • Plasma can be collected on its own through a unique donation process called apheresis, which is a Greek term that means "to separate". Plasma donations use a clever little machine called, unsurprisingly, an apheresis machine which is able to separate the blood, store the plasma and return the red cells and platelets to the donor.
  • Because plasma donations return the red cells to the donor, apheresis donors can normally donate more frequently than whole blood donors who are limited to a three month wait between donations.
  • The apheresis process is more efficient; one donation can collect about twice the amount of plasma that is in a whole blood donation. It is also possible to adjust the amount collected in relation to the donor's weight.

(Source: NZ Blood Service)