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"Only one in 30 Australians regularly roll up their sleeves to donate blood."

It seems that in Australia, donating blood isn't at the top of everyone's to-do list.

In fact, only one in 30 Australians regularly roll up their sleeves to donate this life-saving product – despite one in three of needing blood at least once in their lifetime.

So if the blood donation message is hard to sell to the mainstream Australian population, how much harder is it to persuade the nation's migrant communities – with their differing cultures and customs – to give blood?

This issue has been the focus of research led by Professor Michael Polonsky who, in partnership with Associate Professor Andre Renzaho (now of Monash University) and with the support of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service and other colleagues, has been investigating the attitudes and potential barriers to blood donation by African migrants and refugees.

The fastest growing of Australia's migrant groups, African communities possess unique blood phenotypes and currently there is an urgent need to boost supply within Australia.

'It's essential these be sourced within Australia. On several occasions, the Australian Red Cross Blood Service has had difficulty finding phenotypes of blood for people with rare antibodies  from within the African community and this has resulted in having to import blood … which is inconsistent with Australia's self-sufficiency policy regarding blood products,' explains Professor Polonsky.

Currently undertaking what he says is an 'eclectic mix of research activities', Professor Polonsky – who is an Alfred Deakin Professor – has been with the Deakin Business School since 2008.

His research interests include stakeholder theory in marketing, environmental, social and ethical issues in marketing, cross-cultural and international marketing issues and marketing education.  A prolific contributor, he has also published eight books, 26 book chapters and hundreds of journal article and conference papers.

He says this study presented him with an interesting challenge.

'I'm interested in social issues in general and I've also done work in cross-cultural research. While this is a multicultural research, marketing is an issue of dealing with different consumer segments based on cultural grounds and the role of understanding cultural differences is important.'

Initially, the research was instigated by Australian Red Cross Blood Service in 2009 to understand blood donation barriers and drivers amongst African migrants and refugees.

However, the first stage of the project found that issues associated with home, country, culture or religion where not overly significant.

'Rather there was a strong perception of discrimination within Australia and general mistrust of the medical system (none of which directly related to the Blood Service). For example, we identified that medical mistrust and acculturation is potentially related, which impacts on how migrants view blood donation. We also extended the understanding of blood donation in identifying that the theory of planned behaviour, which has been tested previously in Australia, appears to work slightly differently for Australian-based African communities,' explains Professor Polonsky.

While the attitude African migrant communities is generally very positive about the concept of blood donation (it is a strong tradition in Africa), the researchers found the communities believed their blood donations wouldn't be valued in Australia.

'In Africa they view blood donation differently. It's known as "direct replacement donation". This means, if one of your relatives needed urgently needed blood you would go out and recruit friends, colleagues, neighbours or other relatives to donate. So it's more direct and more community-based – there's a strong link between who needs the blood and who's getting the blood,' says Professor Polonsky.

These findings, combined with the large volume of data produced in the quantitative phase of the project, provided opportunity for a deeper examination of issues and relationships.

Now, through an Australian Research Council linkage grant, the researchers – along with the Australian Blood Service and colleagues at the University of Wollongong – are investigating the development of marketing interventions to increase participation rates.

'We're now actually looking at designing an intervention to go out to the African communities in Victoria and South Australia to see if we can actually increase blood donation rates. In Australia we now have communities we haven't traditionally engaged with, which means there could be unique phenotypes including Pacific Island and sub-continent blood phenotypes and antibodies that the Blood Service can't source from the local community. With global migration these issues become more difficult.'

With its expected intervention to take place during 2014, the project has also provided the researchers with the benefit of working as a multi-disciplinary team.

'This has been really important,' says Professor Polonsky. 'And in reality it occurred serendipitously, but I believe we need make sure we can better leverage multidisciplinary research … it's a critical issue within the Australian research environment.  One of the things I've found in my career is that there are lots of conversations about the same topic but using different words, different domains and different approaches. Getting that cross-fertilisation can be exceptionally difficult but this project has highlighted the importance of having multiple experts who can draw on each other's expertise.'