They gave me HIV-infected blood during pregnancy, woman claims
Betty Muindi and Philip Yegon
February, 19. The dizziness and splitting headaches weren’t letting up. When, instead, they got worse, Lilian Atieno, 31, was rushed to Sigowet Sub-county Hospital. She was heavy with her fourth child.
At the hospital, the doctors determined she was anaemic and her pregnancy at risk. “I was told my Hemoglobin level was too low and I needed an urgent blood transfusion,” she recalls.
Hospital documents in our possession show Atieno received the blood at the facility on the same day. She was discharged three days later. It is this blood transfusion, Atieno says, that changed her life forever.
Two months later, when she gave birth at Rachuonyo Level Four Hospital, she had no fear when nurses suggested a routine HIV test.
“I had been tested three times throughout my pregnancy and ante-natal visits and I was confident that it would turn out negative as well,” she says, a position that, Dinah Okeyo, an ante-natal care nurse at Atela Health Centre, confirmed.
Atieno was dumbfounded when the two red lines started forming on the test kit indicating she was HIV positive.
“I just watched the two red lines on the testing strip in shock, I thought I was dreaming,” she says.
She added: “The doctors told me the likely way I could have been infected was through the blood transfusion I had gotten the previous week and they even contacted Sigowet Hospital to question what could have transpired.”
“I was devastated, I had a bundle of joy in my hands but it did not feel like it. I thought I was going to die, that my child and I had no future,” she says.
Atieno was then advised to file a case against the hospital for a botched blood transfusion, which she did at Sondu Police Station.
Together with her husband, Elisha Opiyo, Atieno went back to Sigowet Hospital to seek an explanation but the lead doctor, only identified as Lang’at, dismissed them saying “the incident was an accident and asked us not to make a big deal out of it”.
They were told the blood was requisitioned from a blood bank in Nakuru County and that the hospital would file a complaint with the facility.
The hospital’s laboratory manager Joseph Cheruiyot confirmed Atieno had sought medical services at the facility and was indeed diagnosed with low blood level and given a blood transfusion.
Cheruiyot said the hospital receives properly screened blood from KNBTS satellite centre at Kericho County Referral Hospital.
He, however, said they do not do another blood pre-screen but only check the blood group for compatibility reasons.
“We don’t do any screening of blood here but we transfuse the same,” said Cheruiyot, adding: “The Kericho blood bank gets blood from Nakuru where screening of the same is done.
But we know blood is screened before being transfused to any sick person at any blood bank centre. It is not true the hospital gives contaminated blood to any one requiring the blood.”
Atieno and her husband’s efforts to reach the hospital in person and on the phone have been futile since their last visit to the facility two months ago.
“My life has been ruined because of this incident. No one should have to suffer from what I am going through. I trusted the government hospital, but I am now trauma-afflicted,” she said.
The wife of a bodaboda rider in Kasipul Kabondo, Homa Bay County, she finally started treatment after three weeks of denial and counselling. She is currently on a once-daily Antiretroviral pill containing Tenofovir Disoproxil Fumarate and TB prevention drugs Isoniazid and Sulfran.
“I cannot get used to feeling dizzy for a few hours after taking the pills. I was told to eat well while on the drugs, but how can I do that with meager income that my husband earns? My baby is also breastfeeding,” she says.
Pursuit of justice
Atieno is glad, however, that her five-month-old son tested negative, although he was also put on drugs to eliminate chances of contracting the disease.
“I was told to take my son for another test at six months and again when he turns one-and-a-half years to rule out infection. I am hopeful that my son will not have to go through what I am going through,” she says fiddling her baby’s tiny fingers.
Atieno has been living with her mother in a single-roomed house in Nairobi’s Athi River in her pursuit of justice.
Her case raises the red flag about the state of the country’s blood banks and procedures followed before transfusion.
The Kenya National Blood Transfusion Services (KNBTS) distanced itself from the claims stating that every donation is quarantined and tested before it is approved for hospital distribution.
KNBTS is the agency charged with collecting, screening, processing and distributing the different components of blood as per need in the country’s transfusion centres.
The centre’s public relations specialist, Joseph Kamotho, said it has not received any formal complaints by anyone on contaminated blood.
“We (KNBTS) contacted the Kericho hospital and they said they receive their blood through proper channels and the patient’s infection may not have been acquired from a donor’s blood products,” he said.
Although latest technologies have helped reduce window periods between the time when a donor is infected and when the infection is picked up by a test, cases of donated blood passing a clean bill of health when in real sense they are not safe can still occur. Blood collected during the window period could infect a recipient.
A chilling survey led by a Kenyan scientist, Margaret Kemunto last year revealed some of the blood transfused in hospitals is contaminated with dangerous substances.
The survey by Nairobi Regional Blood Transfusion Centre (NRBTC) published in the East African Medical Journal, said 12 per cent of 91 tested samples were contaminated with bad bacteria.
In 2017, a scientific study had reported blood at the national bank to be highly contaminated with HIV and syphilis. The study, though dismissed by the government, is still available on the Internet.