Health & Fitness

Low blood donation culture risks lives of critically ill patients

man donating blood
A man donating blood at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi on June 14,2015 as the World Blood Donor Day was celebrated. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG 

Celestine Muthoni, now in her 20s, was an avid blood donor during her primary and secondary school years. But she later stopped doing so when she completed her university and got employed.

"I don’t really know why I stopped. In school, it was one of those things that were considered cool to do. But out here, people don’t take it as a big deal." She added: "Then it’s such a hustle sometimes to keep track of where donations are taking place."

Muthoni is among the many Kenyans, who due to one reason or another, fail to donate blood that is required from critical medical procedures. This has contributed to the blood deficit we have in the country. According to the Kenya National Blood Transfusion Services (KNBTS), the country needs about 400,000 units of blood annually to fulfil various medical needs. Yet, it currently records a shortfall of 250,000 units per year.

This dismal trend is replicated in most developing nations. Indeed, statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) show that the median blood donation rate in high-income countries is 32.1 donations per 1,000 people, as opposed to 4.6 donations per 1,000 people in low-income countries such as Kenya.

As countries mark the World Blood Donor Day on Thursday, health experts are urging affected nations to identify strategies for narrowing this gap so as to sufficiently meet the high demand for the blood in their countries. "We’re always collecting blood yet we never get enough. In fact, we’ve never attained our target.

We get some and it’s over before we know it since there are many people in need of it," Dr Josephine Githaiga, KNBTS director told the Business Daily. Due to this insufficient blood supply, the organisation is often under immense pressure and sometimes unable to deliver blood in good time, in areas where the commodity is required.

The situation becomes dire when many casualties are involved such as after massive road accidents or tragic events like the Westgate terror attack. In such circumstances, people need blood to replace quantities lost as a result of the grave injuries they sustain.

According to Dr Githaiga, a majority of blood collected in Kenya is consumed by mothers and children. Expectant women usually require a transfusion during childbirth if they suffer from excessive bleeding (post-partum haemorrhage) which is the leading cause of Kenya’s high maternal mortality rate that stands at 488 deaths for every 100,000 live births. This translates to about 20 women dying every day from childbirth-related complications.

For children, blood transfusion is usually done to save the lives of those suffering from severe anaemia due to malaria and malnutrition. The two are leading causes of child mortality in Kenya. Aside from pregnant women and children, blood transfusion is also required during critical surgeries such as heart operations.

Patients with non-communicable diseases such as cancer, kidney or liver ailments which are on the rise in Kenya are also potential candidates for transfusion. "By the time someone is in need of blood, this is usually a medical emergency and patients will end up dying without it.

That’s why we are saying that as Kenyans, we need to wake up and do something. Let’s develop a culture of donating and not just leave the task to others," said Dr Githaiga.

She added that once collected, blood can only be stored for a period of 35 to 42 days depending on the preservative used. "So blood donation needs to be continuous." The KNBTS has for a long time relied on primary and secondary schools for blood collection.

But this approach, said Dr Githaiga, does not guarantee a continuous supply of blood since collection usually ceases when schools close yet they make up 80 per cent of donors in the country. "We are therefore urging adults and generally all other Kenyans to join them so we can have sufficient blood all year round."

The health ministry through the KNBTS has begun forging partnerships with private and public organisations to attain this goal. Those already on board include Barclays Bank, Kenya Defence Forces, Kenya Pipeline Company and the National Social Security Fund. "We encourage more to join us.

These organisations are allowing us to come to their place of work, put up our tents and conduct blood drives regularly. So employees can easily stop by briefly then go back to work after donating."

As the entire blood donation process usually takes about 15 minutes, Barclays Bank has started a campaign dubbed ‘15-to-save-a-life’ with the aim of creating awareness among its staff as well as the public on the importance of blood donation.

"We hope to create a culture of blood donation among Kenyans that will eventually see us bridge the existing gap. No Kenyan should risk death due to the lack of blood," said Jeremy Awori, managing director for Barclays Bank Kenya Dr Githaiga stated: "We want the idea of blood donation to become so ingrained in all of us-both adults and children- to an extent that we make it a habit to donate twice or thrice a year."