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Will India’s Blood Banks Benefit From Facebook’s New Blood Donor Registration Feature?

Screenshot of a Facebook registration as a blood donor. Via Vishal Manve.

In India, a new Facebook feature to register users as blood donors has attracted mixed reactions from the public. The feature will allow individuals and hospitals in need of blood to notify nearby donors, by creating posts that include information like blood type, location, and the reason for the donation. Potential donors will be able to respond to requests via WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or even a phone call.

India has a considerable shortage of blood in its blood banks, with more than 38,000 donations reportedly required every day to balance it. Due to the shortage, patients and their relatives either have to search for their requirements from their own networks, or ask the public by using social media — but it is still difficult and time-consuming, both to find donors, or to donate blood to someone in need.

Facebook has more than 241 million users in India. To harness this country-wide userbase, the technology giant made it easy for Facebook users to register as potential blood donors, and connect with people or organizations within their vicinity that may need blood.

Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Facebook, wrote about how the project was conceived:

The idea for this feature came out of a hackathon, and Hema Budaraju, one of our product managers, helped make it a reality. This issue is personal to Hema, whose father was diagnosed with cancer five years ago and lost so much blood during chemotherapy that he had to have a transfusion every day for a week. Hema had to reach out to friends and family to ask for donors and many people showed up once they realized it would help her dad. This is a constant reminder for Hema that people are always willing to help, they just need the tools and information to do so.

The feature became available on October 1, which is India's National Blood Donor Day. India lacks a central blood collection agency, and illegal blood markets thrive in times of need. There are also potential health hazards from using unscreened blood from “professional” donors.

Educator Virendra Banshal lauded the effort:

This is an excellent use of social media. I would like to urge Facebook to also try and develop a feature to encourage organ donation consistent with the prevalent regulations with a brief introduction to the dire need for organ donors in the country.

The new tool, which is currently available only in India, got considerable attention from Facebook users. The feature falls in line with Facebook’s crisis response efforts (like Safety Check), and this database of potential donors can be harnessed during disasters. In 2012, Facebook undertook a similar drive to sign people up for organ donation in United States, Canada and Mexico, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of people registering as donors.

However, some users appear unsure about how the blood donation feature works:

Some poked fun at the concept, making the point that people labeling themselves as virtual donors is not quite the same as actually giving blood:

Others scoffed at what they considered the new, fashionable trend:

Facebook's concept is not new; people have already been using social networks and tools like Socialblood to tap into blood donor networks, but the challenges are many. Building a trustworthy and reliable donor network does not guarantee timely collection, and blood donations are usually urgent matters. However, Facebook made the point that they have worked with nonprofit organizations, health industry experts and potential donors to build this app, in order to eventually connect its database to hospitals, blood banks and other critical facilities.

There are also privacy concerns, but Facebook maintains that any information about blood donors will not be available to the patients or institutions in need, unless donors explicitly provide it.

Hopefully, in the coming days, the logistics of how the feature works will be clarified, so that it can be harnessed by those searching for blood. It remains to be seen whether real donors will step up, instead of just sharing a Facebook badge claiming that they are blood donors.

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