Altruism the only way out of blood bank crisis

Cecilia Mwangi donates blood in Nairobi on February 14, 2019. The Ministry of Health Blood Drive campaign aimed at encouraging city residents to save lives on Valentine's Day. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

You need to know someone to get the gift of blood. This was the greatest lesson I took into 2020 and five months into the year, I’ve finally got around to tell you why.
Last December, I had a rare opportunity to have my colleagues, friends and family pool resources for me to receive 1.4 litres of packed red blood cells to save my life. In droves, they came to blood donation unit.

Two days to New Year’s Eve, I used my slurred breath, blurred vision and drowsiness to send out one request: a blood appeal. Hooked onto monitors at the high-dependency unit at the Aga Khan University Hospital, with only one out of six of my close-knit friends being a successful donor, I sent a text to the only person I thought I knew could help.

The message read: “Alert Blood needed! 4 pints of O+ (positive) blood at Aga Khan Hospital Nairobi High Dependency Unit (HDU room 9) When at Aga Khan hospital just proceed to the blood transfusion unit to donate on behalf of Elizabeth Merab Any blood group is fine”.

At the stroke of midnight on December 31, a few hours after the blood appeal message was published, the first successful donor walked into the hospital in Nairobi.


The finest gesture one can make is to save a life by donating blood. In my case, and thankfully so, the hospital had to turn away most of the donors who had come to voluntarily share this invaluable gift with me after it had received enough units to replace the pints that had been transfused into me.

The number of donors and donations is predominantly limited by the actual need for blood for transfusion because if too many people were to give their blood, hospitals wouldn't know what to do with it, given that stored blood degrades in various ways long before the six-week limit.

Four months later and three pints richer, I still can’t shake off the feeling of “What if?”. What if I wasn’t a journalist? What if my path never crossed with the four key people who spearheaded the blood drive? And what if I couldn’t afford the costs to have the hospital do the transfusion from their blood bank as we awaited replacement? Would I have survived?

These, unfortunately, are questions that many Kenyan patients and their relatives have to ponder through at a time when the United States government has stopped funding Kenya’s blood services, putting the critical amenity in a quandary.

From 2004 to 2018, the Health ministry relied on America’s President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) for the Kenya’s blood safety programme.

Pepfar, which has been supporting blood collection, testing and policy issues in Kenya, cut funding last October, leaving the ministry in a precarious position. As a result, patients and their relatives are left to either look for donors or buy blood from private hospitals.

But the problem goes beyond funding. With each passing day, the crisis and need for more blood donors boil down to the simple act of altruism. See, historically, cultural accounts and descriptions of blood donation have been associated with notions of altruism, national solidarity and imagined community.

While these ideals have continued to be influential, the business of procuring and supplying blood has become increasingly complex.

Blood is an important resource, both for planned treatments and urgent interventions. Apart from the usual transfusions due to anaemia, there are other conditions that need blood to save lives such as bleeding in maternity, cancer patients who need a transfusion after protracted sessions of chemotherapy and accident victims.

It is also vital for treating the wounded during emergencies like natural disasters, accidents and armed conflicts.

Looking at these reasons, one can argue that it should be a no-brainer for any eligible donor. But no matter how noble a cause donation is, fewer and fewer people are donating blood, and this negatively affects Kenya’s blood banks. Every ten minutes, there are at least seven Kenyans in need of blood to save their lives, against an available supply of 170,000 blood units per day.

This crisis is not only a result of donor funds cut but it is also caused by peoples’ dwindling desire for altruism. Voluntary non-remunerated blood donors are the foundation of safe, sustainable blood supply. Despite the country’s need of about one million units of blood annually, last year only 164,275 units of the need was collected, or 16 per cent. Blood is no longer free. Not even in public hospitals.

Today, altruism seems to be pegged on personal connections and interactions. Social media, especially Twitter, is fast being used to facilitate patient-centric healthcare, with virtual blood drives leading the pack. In my case, most of the people who freely and willingly saved my life by sharing this immeasurable gift either knew me, work with me or knew a person close to me.

Not every Kenyan, however, is lucky enough to have a large group of volunteers.

People’s minds nowadays are fixed on incentives yet whenever there is a disaster, you will see people flocking donation centers. In fact, the government acknowledges receiving numerous calls from people during disasters, because they want to be seen to be doing something worthwhile.

In a country where blood supply is declining and demand for donor blood is increasing, patients are left dependent on the goodwill of people to voluntarily donate blood without financial reward. Should this option fail, then they are left at the mercy of hospitals that less subtly now more than ever ask you to pay for the blood from their banks.

Whichever way you look at it, Kenyans need to be reminded of the virtue of altruism. It is the only way out of the ongoing crisis.

My greatest takeaway as I recover is that some of us give blood because we were asked by a friend, some know that a family member or a friend might need blood some day and some believe it is the right thing to do.

What many are forgetting is that you really don’t need a special reason to give blood; you just need your own reason because one day, that someone could be you.

Elizabeth Merab is a health and science journalist at the Nation Media Group.
Reach her at [email protected]


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