Blood transfusion: Crisis looms as Kenya blood banks run dry

Monday, August 19th, 2019 00:00 |
Blood transfusion.

Patrick Mwangi

Kenya could run out of blood in a month unless the government takes urgent measures to address the cash crunch facing the blood transfusion services, stakeholders in the donation and transfusion sector have warned. 

The looming crisis also means that by that time, any Kenyan receiving blood transfusion will be at risk of blood transmitted infections such as HIV and Hepatitis B, as the cash crunch could lead to shutdown of the Blood Establishment Computer Software (BECS) system. This is the system that manages blood and blood products in the country.

“Kenya has only two weeks supply of blood bags for collection and transfusion of blood in the stores of the Kenya National Blood Transfusion Service (KNBTS),” says Joseph Wangendo, the chairman of the Committee of Blood Donation and Transfusion Stakeholders (CBDTS). 

Wangendo, speaking during a media briefing in Nairobi, added that the shutdown of the BECS system might force Kenya to revert to the unreliable manual screening method, with the risk that patients could receive blood that has not been properly screened.

He was flanked by the vice chairperson of the Committee, Justice (rtd), Violet Mavisi. KNBTS is the multi-sectoral body mandated to manage blood and blood products in the country.      

Mavisi stated that the only way to save the country’s blood transfusion services is to enact legislation that will govern the sector and facilitate the necessary investment by the government.

After years of work, a Bill to create a law governing blood management in Kenya is finally before Parliament. Sabina Chege, the chairperson of the Health Parliamentary Committee, will table the Bill, dubbed the Kenya National Blood Transfusion Service Legislative Bill, 2019.  

“The new law is meant to ensure adequate, equitable and safe supply of blood and blood products countrywide,” she said in an interview.

How did the country find itself in such a corner? The answer lies in funding. Information available from multiple sources indicates that KNBTS was established in 2000 after the terrorist attack on the American embassy in Nairobi. For the last 15 years, Kenya’s blood safety programme has been funded almost exclusively by the American Government through the US President’s Emergency Plan For Aids Relief (PEPFAR), to the tune of $72.5 million (Sh7.5 billion).

This money went to establishment of physical infrastructure, vehicles and equipment, policy and guidelines, training and capacity building, blood collection, testing and processing, BECS and appropriate blood utilisation. 

However, the US government gave notice that this funding will end in September 2019. Indeed, officials from the KNBTS and PEPFAR met on August 9 in Nairobi to officially close out the funding programme. In other words, this leaves blood transfusion services in Kenya with no funding. 

Stakeholders have for several years been advocating for enactment of a law to govern blood transfusion services, according to Wangendo, adding that; “Whatever little money the Government factors in for blood transfusion is spent at the Ministry of Health, as KNBTS operates as a department in the Ministry”.   

Sources in the know but who do not wish to be identified feel that official reluctance for legislation that will create an independent entity blame officials who they claim feel threatened by a change to the status quo.

Stakeholders determined that only a well-funded, independent, entity running could resolve the perennial blood shortage, a deficit experts at estimate at almost 70 per cent. Kenya’s annual blood collection is about 150,000 pints, against a target of 800,000 pints based on recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The two officials say that the situation is getting dire by the day, noting that the National Testing Laboratories, which have been screening blood for over 18 sites in the country, have run out of automated screening reagents, and are currently running on a manual platform. This has slowed down the screening process besides being compounded by high error rates.

Only Nairobi and Mombasa, out of the six centres nationally, are currently screening blood.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel in the shape of a bill dubbed the Kenya National Blood Transfusion Service Legislative Proposal 2019, which has been submitted as a private members bill to Parliament. The House Health Committee adopted this Bill after being tabled by the     chairperson Sabinah Chege. 

But even as the bill winds its way through the august House this August, patients will still be requiring blood. And they cannot wait. - The writer can be reached at [email protected]

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