While growing up in her home village of Kabongezo, Mityana district, Elizabeth Nabatanzi was always told that if she routinely ate raw tomatoes, she would always have enough blood in her body and would never need a blood transfusion. However early this year in January, the 37-year old and mother of four had a strong fever that left her anaemic, a medical term used, in simple terms, to mean that she lacked enough blood in her body.
Nabatanzi was of course puzzled, given what she had been told about blood and tomatoes. Many people like Nabatanzi find themselves requiring an urgent blood transfusion, as they have lost blood due to an accident or labour complications, or need to undergo surgery.
Michael Mukundane, the Coordinator Central Region Blood Bank says that despite the dire need for blood in the country, majority of Ugandans are either ignorant or care less about blood donation.
Misconceptions, myths and lack of access to information inform such attitudes. Some fear that while donating blood or having a blood transfusion, they will be infected with diseases. This was why Nabatanzi was hesitant to receive blood.
What stops others from receiving blood
“We were told that one can maliciously infect you with HIV while donating or receiving blood in the hospital,” said Abdul Sseruyange, her neighbour. “In fact when we received news that she was to undergo blood transfusion, we were worried for her life,” added the 65-year old.
Despite its invaluable benefits, blood donation, Mukundane says is not well embraced. This is reflected in the amount of efforts the Uganda Blood Transfusion Services (UBTS), the agency responsible for collection, testing, storage and distribution of blood across the country, makes in urging people to donate blood.
“We do massive campaigns on TV, radio, newspapers, send messages on people’s phones, do road shows, all urging people to donate blood but only 1.5 million Ugandans out of an estimated 34 million people donate blood each year,” he says.
Mukundane says that in Uganda, unlike in some countries especially in Europe, donation is voluntary and non remunerated meaning that no one is coaxed or paid to donate blood, which is perhaps why people are unwilling to give blood.
But there are benefits of donating.
Besides the psychological satisfaction of having saved a life, Mukundane adds that blood donors attract attention. He explains, “It is just common sense that if someone came here and said, ‘Here is my card, I am a blood donor. I have a patient who needs blood,’ the way I receive him is different from the way I would receive he who has not donated blood. Not that I will not give blood to the person who has not donated but it is clear that you are a blood donor, you save lives so people should save you. It is motivational.”
The other benefit is accessing free testing for diseases like HIV, Syphilis and Hepatitis among others because every blood sample taken must be screened and the donor given results.
Why blood is sometimes difficult to access
Peter Arikiriza, a resident of Kayunga Bugerere says when his wife lost amounts of blood at a hospital in Kampala during labour, he was asked to look for a blood donor and when he could not find one, he was made to pay for the blood.
“They asked me whether I or my wife had ever donated blood and therefore have a donor’s card. We had not and so did not have a card. Then I was asked to look for a relative or friend who could donate blood to my wife. I said I was available and willing. They took a sample from me. Unfortunately my blood was found incompatible to hers. Then my wife’s sister offered herself. They said my wife’s sister did not have enough blood so she could not donate either.
We were desperate, angry and confused. We did not know what to do next. It was very difficult to call our family members from Kayunga at that very moment to come to Kampala. Yet we knew that the longer we took without finding a solution, the bigger the risk was of losing my wife. Then a health worker came and said if we had money, someone would help us procure blood for her. We agreed. All we wanted was to save my wife. They asked for Shs150,000 saying part of the money would be used for transport. After about 30 minutes, blood was brought in,” narrates Arikiriza. He says his ordeal could have emanated from the fact that he had never donated blood before.
Arikiriza’s experience is one example of the many allegations of patients being asked to pay for blood in the health centres. Early this year, civil society activists from the Anti Corruption Coalition Uganda and Universal Human Rights Defenders accused Kawolo Hospital personnel for stealing drugs and selling blood to patients. The hospital is located along the accident prone Jinja-Mukono highway.