Dr Tiju Thomas, an IFS officer who studied medicine, has set up the first public online blood donors registry in the UAE where he is currently posted. He speaks to Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com
Dr Tiju Thomas is a diplomat and a doctor by training. He studied medicine in Kottayam, Kerala, before joining the Indian civil service in 1999. Currently, he is posted as the Consul (Economic and Education, Press and Communication) in the United Arab Emirates.
After joining the consulate general in 2012, the doctor in him took him to some of the best hospitals in Dubai as the UAE has been honoured by the World Health Organisation for being among the top five countries in the world with the best blood transfusion services.
One of the hospitals he visited had a very large blood bank.
Doctors at the hospital told the consul about the blood shortage experienced by the hospitals in summer and during Ramadan.
Also, the shortage was more for rare blood groups.
"Blood donation goes down drastically when people fast and also when summer is at its peak. The UAE needs a lot of blood due to various health issues. I am told that more than 40% of the blood goes to thalassemia patients and they need blood regularly; on a fortnightly or monthly basis, Dr Thomas explained.
Thalassemia is a genetic blood disorder.
"The shortage of rare blood groups is because even in blood donation camps, donors with normal blood group are more, compared to rare groups. There is a shortage of such groups all the time which becomes acute during summer and Ramadan," he added.
When Dr Thomas became aware of this problem and belonging to the rare O negative group himself, he donated blood right at that moment itself. He also promised a solution to the problem.
Back home, he wondered how he as an Indian could help the UAE where Indians are the biggest expat community. He thought of a blood donor registry, which is very common and successful in many cities in India, but a similar online registry was not available in the UAE.
"There are organisations with small groups who regularly donate blood, but the list is available only to them and not to the outside world. There was no way a hospital or a person in need could contact the regular donors. That is why I felt an exhaustive online public blood donor registry was needed which could be accessed by anyone," Dr Thomas said.
The Consul started the process by first designing a Web site www.blooddonors.ae and then contacting various Indian organisations for their list of donors.
To his surprise, he found that they did not have a proper database of donors. The organisations were given the option to operate pages on the Web site where they could add, delete or correct the information.
They were also given the facility to add photographs of the blood donation drives organised by them.
"It took some time for us to develop all this. Though it was free for all and for a free Web site, being a diplomat, I had to get the necessary permission to go about it."
On June 14 which is World Donation Day, the first and the biggest blood donor directory in the UAE had a soft launch, and on June 21 -- International Yoga Day, Dr Thomas decided to officially launch the Web site.
"16,000 people had assembled to celebrate International Yoga day and we thought that would be the ideal day to launch the Web site too. Yoga is a gift of India to mankind, to the entire world. Similarly, this is a gift of the Indian community to the UAE community."
Dr Thomas was overwhelmed by public enthusiasm. 110,000 visitors accessed the Web site.
"It is remarkable and I should thank the Indian community here for the response."
The site has separate options for individuals and groups. Individual donors can go to the Web site and register themselves and there is a page for organisations, associations and large groups that can be contacted to organise instant blood donation drives in case of shortages.
Dr Thomas says 1,650 people have already registered. With the Sikh community group of 2,500 members already joining; the Dubai Kerala Muslim community organising a one week campaign to enrol 1,000 to 1,500 people; the Christian church giving a list of another 1,500 names; Bharatiyam, the friends of India offering to enrol their 1,000 members and also the Indian Schools Association promising to enrol parents and teachers once schools reopen -- the response has been heartening.
Dr Thomas hopes to have at least 10,000 names in the registry very soon.
"This is only the beginning. The UAE has an Indian population of around 2.5 million. Though not all can and will donate, we are trying to get the maximum number of people from the age group of 18 to 55 to enrol in the registry. Anybody in need of blood can enter the Website and see the name of the donor, mobile number, gender, blood group and the last date of blood donation. Later on, we plan to add the donor id given by the Dubai blood bank so that anyone can reliably contact the person."
Other than functioning as a registry, the Web site has many articles on blood and blood donation, both in English and Arabic, and also an audio visual game on how to match various blood groups.
As it was an Indian diplomat who launched such an initiative, it received a lot of media attention. Dr Tiju Thomas says African countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, and other Middle Eastern countries have evinced interest and requested him to replicate such a Web site in those countries.
"I believe this is how we build bridges between various nations and communities," he says.
While it will be the blood banks at hospitals that would mostly use the registry, Dr Thomas says: "Even if a single person gets a life out of this registry, we will feel the work rewarding. India is very advanced as far as such registries are concerned, but many countries in the world are in need of such an initiative."
"My dream is to see this is put to use in many countries to save lives. This is a stepping stone to a bone marrow registry and I see many other possibilities in the future."