The Western Province Blood Transfusion Service was established in October 1938 when the first meeting of the Cape Peninsula Blood Transfusion Service took place at Groote Schuur Hospital. It was a slow start, with only 200 donors enrolling in the first three months and an average of 30 transfusions per month.
In the 1930s, transfusion practice was in its most basic phase of development. Hospitals would request a donation and when a suitable donor was found, they would report to the hospital. There, blood would be transfused directly from the donor to the recipient with only a screen separating them – a far cry from today’s procedures!
The Service was able to provide blood serum and whole blood to military hospitals for the duration of the Second World War from 1939.
In 1942, the Service obtained its own building in St. George’s Street where three donors could be accommodated at a time. Back then, blood was collected in Horlicks milk bottles.
At that stage, blood was delivered to government laboratories at Groote Schuur Hospital for testing and cross-matching. These government laboratories assisted the Service in developing suitable storage techniques and serum processing.
By October 1943 the donor base had grown to 1 394 active donors providing blood for an average of 182 transfusions a month. When the Service got its first mobile unit in 1949 it was able to start scouting for donors throughout the province. The company name was incorporated and changed to the Western Province Blood Transfusion Service. In 1953 the Service moved its head office to Commerce House.
The first blood bank technical staff were employed in 1960. In the mid-1960s the Service transcended the Cape Peninsula’s borders and a branch was opened in Worcester, followed shortly by Paarl, George and later Upington. The increased demand for blood saw a second mobile unit put into action. During this decade the head office moved its premises to Broadway Centre where 15 donors could be accommodated at a time.
From there, the Western Province Blood Transfusion Service grew in strength and donor numbers. By June 1961, over 50 000 donors had given blood and the mobile units had visited 352 external clinics.
During 1967 the Service moved again, to Medipark on the Foreshore. This expansion made it possible for the organisation to provide a comprehensive service for the technical aspects of blood transfusion. In addition donor grouping, cross-matching, serological, biochemistry and plasma aspirating laboratories were housed in the same building. It was also home to the largest single-unit blood bank in the country at the time. Things continued to improve, and the Service now employed 160 staff members, which allowed for the collection and distribution of almost 7 000 units of blood per month.
It was a momentous day for the organisation when, in 1967, it was closely involved with the first heart transplant that took place at Groote Schuur Hospital.
New technology in the early 70s dramatically improved the Service’s capabilities. New, light-weight mobile equipment was a welcome introduction, allowing standard vehicles to be used as mobile units.
Glass bottles made way for plastic containers for the collection of blood in 1973. The new containers were better suited to the separation of components such as platelets and fresh frozen plasma. A new laboratory featuring a walk-in cold room was also built. Hepatitis B testing was introduced in 1974. Blood banks were opened at Conradie, Victoria, Karl Bremmer and Somerset Hospitals.
In 1975 the Cell Separation clinic was opened, a first of its kind in Africa.
The following year, the scientific division of the Service was established and the first automated blood grouping analyser was installed. In 1978 a bank for frozen red blood cells was established. The Service then took over responsibility for all the blood banking services at all Provincial hospitals.
In 1980, a Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) and paternity testing service was introduced, and in 1983 the quality assurance department was established. A new laboratory facility was set up in 1985 to facilitate testing blood for HIV infection.
The Service was accredited to the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) in 1987. The following year – marking 50 years of existence – the Service opened its fractionation plant at Beaconvale in Parow.
In April 1990, the Service moved to its current head office in Pinelands and the permanent donor centre was moved to the Parkade Building in Cape Town. Further progress was made regarding technology and automation in the field of blood grouping and viral testing.
The permanent donor centre moved to Long Street during 2005 and the opening of another two blood donor centres followed – N1 City Mall in 2009 and Blue Route Mall in 2013.
Towards the end of 2005 the Service introduced the latest technology to test donated blood – Nucleic Acid Testing (NAT). NAT uses DNA technology to narrow the “window period” of HIV infection.
The WPBTS Memorandum of Incorporation replaced the Articles of Association in 2013. WPBTS also started offering iron replacement tablets for donors at risk of iron deficiency.
In 2014 the donor acceptance criteria changed regarding male-to-male sex (MSM).
During 2016 electronic cross-matching was introduced at all blood banks. The blood component separation process was also significantly improved.
The WP Blood mobile application was launched in 2017 and platelet additive solution (PAS) was introduced.
The Western Province Blood Transfusion Service is proud to have grown from a small community organisation into one of the most technologically advanced blood services in Africa. Today, the Service is widely respected for its tireless efforts to supply sufficient, safe blood to patients throughout the Western Cape.