Officials: 5 reasons Kenya’s blood banks are running dry

Kenya National Blood Transfusion Service officials during a blood donation drive in Nairobi in January last year. [File, Standard]
Kenya is facing a shortage of blood supplies in its hospitals, with relatives and friends of patients increasingly having to put out calls for people to donate. 

The Kenya Red Cross has been posting some of these social media appeals on Twitter.

Already this month, they have posted appeals for more than 10 people who need blood in different hospitals around the country.

So how much blood does Kenya need and why are there shortages? Based on World Health Organisation guidelines for the proportion of donors relative to total population, Kenya should be collecting as much as one million units of blood a year.

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Kenya’s population is 47 million, so even if just 1 per cent donated blood, the country would have at least 470,000 units.

But in 2018/2019, only 164,000 units of blood were collected, much less than these guidelines, as Kenyans are reluctant to donate.

The figures have not changed much over the years.

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In addition, in 2018, 77 per cent of people who donated blood were first-time donors.

Repeat blood donors are better as they ensure a regular supply of blood and reduce the cost and effort involved in trying to find first-time donors.

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The vast majority of funding for this blood collection programme - some 80 per cent - came from outside donors, according to a recent government report.

This ensured there was money for essential supplies, personnel and other blood safety-related costs.

The main donor was the US government, through the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief - known as Pepfar for short. It’s a programme to help save the lives of those suffering from HIV/Aids around the world.

Kenya was a major beneficiary of this, but funding was cut back last September, as a result of which supplies and equipment for the blood supply programme stopped.

Ruweida Obo, Lamu County MP, says the problem has been over-reliance on donors. “When the funds were cut the government didn’t have an alternative plan in place,” she says.

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A government report in December warned of the impending risk, saying “the Kenya National Blood Transfusion Service stands a risk of extremely diminished collection” and called for “urgent funding from exchequer”.

But the funding was not provided on time.

Dr Fridah Govedi, the head of the Kenya National Blood Transfusion Service, admits that the Government was caught off guard by the decision to end funding, saying they had expected it to run up to March 2020.

“There was a gap in ensuring sustainability... I think that was an oversight,” she said.

She said that at one point after donor funding ended in September, they were down to 1,000 units of blood a day.

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Fully stable

“We require a minimum of at least 1,500 units daily, and ideally 3,000 units per day to be fully stable,” she says.

But she insists that currently the country is collecting between 2,500 and 3,000 units per day, and is now able to fund blood collection through reallocating resources at the Health Ministry.

Doctors have, however, told the BBC they are still experiencing shortages.

Dr Thuranira Kaugiria, a public health advocate, believes more autonomy should be given to the national blood transfusion service, rather than it being controlled by the government.

But he says the country is suffering because not enough people give blood.

“If only 1 per cent of Kenyans donated blood, then we would have enough. But even with the funding, we don’t usually have enough blood. We need to instil a blood-donating culture,” he told the BBC.

Dr Govedi says Kenyans do not appreciate the importance of donating blood.

“Some people believe if you donate blood you will die, or if you give blood it is a bad omen. Some also fear being tested - that they could be called back for results - that’s the fear of the unknown.”

The Government has been holding public blood donation events. It is also targeting adult donors to avoid blood shortages during school holidays as it relies heavily on donations by secondary school pupils.

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Kenya Red CrossBlood shortageKenya National Blood Transfusion Service