WHO warns Europe of Covid-19 ‘resurgence’ and urges families to wear face masks at Christmas

The World Health Organization in Europe Wednesday urged families to wear face masks during this year's Christmas family gatherings, as it warned of a "further resurgence" of Covid-19 in early 2021.

WHO warns Europe of Covid-19 'resurgence' and urges families to wear face masks at Christmas
Pedestrians wearing protective face masks check out the window in a store in Paris. Photo: AFP

The UN  agency said people should not underestimate “the importance of your decisions” and encouraged extra precaution for holiday gatherings, even within the family. 

If possible, the WHO said celebrations should be held outdoors and “participants should wear masks and maintain physical distancing.”

For indoor festivities, the WHO said limiting the number of guests and ensuring good ventilation were key to reducing the risk of infection.

“It may feel awkward to wear masks and practise physical distancing when around friends and family, but doing so contributes significantly to ensuring that everyone remains safe and healthy,” the health agency said in a statement.

The plea came as the agency noted that “Covid-19 transmission across the European region remains widespread and intense,” even though some “fragile progress” had been made.

“There is a high risk of further resurgence in the first weeks and months of 2021, and we will need to work together if we are to succeed in preventing it,” WHO Europe said.

The WHO's European Region comprises 53 countries and includes Russia and several countries in Central Asia, a region that has registered more than 22 million cases of the new coronavirus and close to 500,000 deaths.

In the last seven days, nearly 1.7 million new cases have been recorded, as well as more than 34,500 deaths.

As a second wave of the novel coronavirus is sweeping over the continent, many countries have once again introduced tough measures to curb the spread.

On Wednesday, several new measures were imposed, including the closure of non-essential shops in Germany and pubs and restaurants in Britain.

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FACT CHECK: Are Brits banned from giving blood in Sweden?

In many countries, potential blood doners who lived in the UK between 1980 and 1996 are banned from giving blood due to a risk of mad cow disease. What's the situation like in Sweden?

FACT CHECK: Are Brits banned from giving blood in Sweden?

Why are Brits banned from giving blood in some countries?

Blood donation bans for anyone living in the UK between 1980-96 are currently in place across Europe: Spain, Italy, Belgium, France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and Norway all currently have permanent bans on donating blood for anyone in this group.

Brits in this group are also banned from giving blood in the US and Canada.

These bans were originally introduced in the 90s amid an outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in the UK, commonly referred to as “mad cow disease” in English, or galna ko-sjukan in Swedish.

Mad cow disease is spread by eating the meat of affected cattle, hence the ban for people resident in the UK during the outbreak.

There’s currently no way of screening blood for BSE, and with estimates suggesting that as many as one in 2,000 people in the UK could carry the disease, many countries chose to ban donations from this group altogether back in the 90s as a precautionary measure.

Now, some countries – such as Ireland in 2019 and Australia in 2022 – have started to lift bans on British blood donations, following reviews of epidemiological data and expert advice.

What’s the situation like in Sweden?

In Sweden, the situation is slightly different. Anyone wanting to give blood must answer a series of questions on their medical and personal history, including a question asking whether they lived in the UK for six months between 1980 and 1996.

The Local contacted GeBlod, Sweden’s blood donor organisation, to ask about this question and what it means for prospective blood donors in Sweden.

“In Skåne, it’s possible to donate blood even if you have lived in the UK for more than six months between 1980 and 1996,” Ingrid Johansson, GeBlod spokesperson for the Skåne region told The Local.

“We split the bag of blood which is donated into red blood cells, plasma and platelets. The plasma can also be sent to medicine production if it’s not given to the patient.”

Johansson said that this could differ in different regions.

“In Skåne, we don’t send this plasma [from those living in the UK at this time] to medicine production. You can donate blood, but the plasma won’t be used to make medicines, it will go to patients, like most plasma does.”

It may seem counterintuitive that plasma can be given to patients but not used in medicine production, but it’s because of pharmaceutical regulations.

Pharmaceutical companies often make drugs for sale all over the world, meaning that it is easier to comply with international rules on British blood use in medicines rather than use materials which won’t be accepted in some countries.

Although many countries have begun to allow British blood donors to donate blood, it would require each individual country with a ban on British blood to change their laws before medicines using British plasma could be approved worldwide.

Johansson said that regulations could differ in different areas of Sweden, so it’s a good idea to check with your local blood donation centre first if you’re interested in donating blood.

“In some parts of Sweden, they don’t send plasma to the same company we do, rather to another company. It depends on what requirements the company has.”

She stressed that it was important to donate blood anyway if you can, even though they might not be able to use all parts of the blood you donate if you’re in this group.

“We need all the blood donors we can get – what you should do though, is contact the blood donation centre if you were in the UK for more than six months between 1980 and 96, and let them know, just to make sure they can use your blood.”

The Local also contacted Ingrid Engström, GeBlod’s communications officer in Stockholm, who said Brits are able to give blood there.

“If you’ve lived in the UK during this time, we don’t use your plasma. That’s plasma for medicine production.”

“These are national questions – the same questions are used across Sweden,” she said. “The question we ask is ‘have you stayed in the UK for more than six months between 1980 and 1996?’ and then you answer ‘yes, I have’, and then we ask if you were ill or if any of your close family have had mad cow disease. If you answer ‘no’ to that question, you can donate blood. We just won’t use your plasma.”

You must be able to speak Swedish – unless you live in Stockholm

“In Stockholm – only in Stockholm – we can take donations from people who speak English,” Engström said. “We can carry out the health declaration in English”.

“It’s a good idea to call ahead to make sure you can get help – in most places, some of us are trained to carry out a health declaration in English. But it’s a good idea to call and make sure someone is working that day who can do that.”

Engström hoped that the service would be offered in other regions too.

“It’s a question of resources, really. Not all regions are able to do it.”

On top of speaking Swedish (or English in Stockholm), blood donors in Sweden must also have a Swedish personal number and Swedish ID – such as a drivers licence or Skatteverket’s ID card.

What about other countries?

Those who were born and raised in tropical areas with a malaria risk may have to wait before giving blood, even if they’ve never had the disease.

“You can’t have had malaria, and if you spent your first five years of life in a country which has a malaria risk and you travel back to that area, you’ll be banned from giving blood for three years. So if you go back often, you might never be able to give blood,” Engström explained.

“If you’ve ever had malaria, you can’t donate blood. I could travel abroad and get malaria today, and I wouldn’t be able to donate blood any more,” she added.

“Otherwise, for everyone else, you can’t donate blood for six months after returning from an area with a malaria risk.”

How great is the need for blood in Sweden?

“There’s a great need for blood right now – everywhere, the number of operations has increased now that hospitals want to shorten their queues after the pandemic, so there’s a need for more blood to be able to complete these,” Engström said.

“In general, just in the Stockholm region, we use around 100 litres of blood a day in our hospitals. If we zoom out to the whole of Sweden, one bag of blood is used per minute, around the clock, every day of the year.”

“So it’s a lot. We need more people to give blood, we need a larger base – not everyone can run and go give blood four times a year or three times a year for women, that’s one thing, but on the other hand, we need a group of people who are able to give blood which we can call in, ask to come in and give blood now, for example.”

Engström also mentioned the importance of giving blood, specifically now and in the run-up to the summer months.

“You’re very welcome to come and give blood before you go on holiday. People go on holiday, obviously, but the healthcare need stays the same.”