Lola James grew up fearing that she could die at a young age. As a child, she was asthmatic and she was always prevented from participating in outdoor activities with her friends.
Each time she wanted to join her friends to play, she would hear screams of “don’t go there, it’s dangerous” from her parents. She would cry in her heart as she never knew why she was being prevented from playing with her mates. She was overly protected.
What her parents, however, did not know was that they were creating fear and anxiety in her. And she grew up with those.
“Because I had asthma, I was excessively protected. Every time, I was always hearing yells of ‘there is dust there, don’t go there, it’s dangerous,’” James told our correspondent, “The way I was treated when I was young, it made me grow up with an anxiety that I could die at any moment.”
Another experience that shaped up James’ life was still when she was a child and her mother used to take her to the Infectious Diseases Hospital at Yaba, Lagos.
There, she would witness cases of children dying in the hospital and the crying of mothers echoing through the four walls of the hospital. When she asked her mother why those women were crying, “My mother would say their children were dying but that the mothers had no money to get treatment for the kids. I would feel terrible,” James said.
These two experiences, James said, made her to be a voluntary blood donor today.
She said, “Yes, my mother used to take me to the Infectious Diseases Hospital at Yaba, Lagos. My memory of that place was of children suffering and dying and their mothers crying. I remember I would go to my mother and ask her, ‘Why is that woman crying?’ My mother would say it’s because the woman’s child was dying and she needed money to be treated or buy drugs.
“Sometime, it could be because the child had died and the mother was weeping profusely. These experiences made me to decide right from when I was a child that I would grow up to become someone who saves lives. Since then, I decided that I would give anything to save the lives of others no matter what it would cost me. That’s why I donate blood today.”
James is among a network of about 1,000 young Nigerians who are voluntarily donating their blood primarily to save the lives of sickle cell patients and secondarily accident victims.
The network, called the Haima Health Initiative, was founded by Ms Bukola Bolarinwa, who is also the President of the Sickle Cell Aid Foundation, Abuja.
According to the World Health Organisation, sickle cell disease is the most prevalent genetic disease in Africa and it is estimated that more than 300,000 babies are born with severe forms of hemoglobinopathies [the gene causing sickle cell disease] worldwide each year.
According to the organisation, while 75 per cent of all patients with sickle cell disease live in sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria alone accounts for more than 100,000 new births every year.
This mind-boggling statistics made Bukola, 29, to establish the Haima Health Initiative, a social media networking-like platform that connects sickle cell patients, hospitals and accident victims who need blood transfusions to voluntary blood donors.
James’ experience as a child was what prompted her into enlisting on the platform and donating her blood voluntarily.
She said, “I used to jokingly say when I die, if my heart or kidney or any other organ is still functioning well, it should be removed and given to someone who might need it to survive. Now it’s no more a joke, I mean it. That’s why when the opportunity of voluntary donating blood came up, I keyed into it.
“The very first time I donated blood freely was in 2012. I was in Abuja at a cancer awareness programme and I was told that someone needed blood. I went there and I was tested. My blood was compatible and I donated it.
“The second time was in 2015 when a friend of mine who had just undergone surgery needed blood. Thankfully, our blood was compatible and I gave it. I also did one in February 2017. It’s now every three months that I donate blood and my next donation is in June.”
James lamented that many Nigerians were not willing to voluntarily donate their blood despite that blood availability is generally low across hospitals in the country.
She said, “I think awareness is very poor. Nobody will die for donating their blood, but many people are afraid. I believe Nigerians have a large heart and if they are sure of accountability, they would donate.
“Some think if they donate their blood, someone else is going to sell it, so this is why they need to know the reason for blood donation. Some people are also afraid that if they want to donate their blood, their blood would have to be tested and they are afraid of the outcome.
“Some are scared of being discovered to have Human Immunodeficiency Virus when tested. Sometime ago, a doctor friend of mine got five people who she convinced to donate their blood freely, but on screening, it was discovered that they all had Hepatitis B. I think an incident like this could scare away others.”
‘My cousin’s death made me start donating blood’
Mr. Azeez Opeloyeru, based in Abuja, had a cousin, a sickle cell patient, who died of stroke in 2013. This experience would make him to enlist on the blood donation network and voluntarily start donating.
He told our correspondent, “I had a cousin who died of stroke four years ago in Abuja; he was a sickle cell patient. It was later I understood sickle cell patients need regular blood transfusions. It pained me and since that time, I had been looking for opportunities to donate blood and I got one.
“Since I started donating blood, I feel blessed to be a blessing unto others. Sometime ago, there was a small boy who had an accident in school and was rushed to the hospital. He needed blood badly. I have a boy, so I could relate to the boy’s condition.
“I was called by HHI to go and donate blood to the boy since I live in Abuja. I was picked and went to the hospital. I could have driven there but I learnt that if you donate blood, you don’t drive as you will be temporarily weak.
“My blood was tested and it was discovered that it was compatible with the boy’s, so I donated it. The boy recovered and today he is still doing fine. Anytime I remember that my blood donation saved the boy’s life, I am happy. I met the father of the boy recently and he was joyous.”
Opeloyeru’s plea to Nigerians is to start doing things that could impart the lives of others positively such as donating blood.
“As Nigerians, regardless of tribe and religion, I think we should not forget empathy. I now donate my blood monthly, but I will not be able to do so in June as this is the month of Ramadan fasting,” he said.
Another young Nigerian that is a member of the network of those who donate their blood freely is Framah Zwingina, who said that his empathy made him to start donating blood.
He said, “I went to the hospital some years back and after some testing, I was advised to donate some of my blood. I obliged. That was how I started giving my blood. It is a way of giving back to the society.
“Apart from showing empathy, I believe it’s also a good way of ensuring your blood level is being kept under control. I also learnt that sickle cell patients need blood transfusion and I just felt that I should do my best in giving. Sometimes it’s not only money you give to people and it’s not everyone that needs money. Like sickle cell patients, all they need is blood. I now donate my blood every three months.”
Another volunteer blood donor, Scott Adamu, based in Abuja, told our correspondent that knowing her blood group was what motivated her to start donating her blood.
Since 2006 when the medical laboratory science graduate started donating blood, she has been doing so twice in a year.
She said, “As a medical laboratory scientist, I became naturally interested in haematology [the study and treatment of blood]. More particularly, I am a volunteer blood donor because of my blood group, which is O Negative.
“This means I can only receive blood from O Negative whereas I can give to anybody. People like me are rare — just four per cent of the population, according to statistics.
“For instance, while I was in the university and a test was carried out, out of about 30 students, I was the only person with O Negative blood group. Everyone kept looking as if I was strange. This means that if someone with my blood group needs blood transfusion, it would be very difficult for them to get.
“That’s why I decided I should start donating my blood just in case someone of my blood group type needs it. The first time I donated blood was in 2006 and since then, I have been doing it twice in a year. I feel it’s an opportunity to donate. It’s good to be someone whose action can save lives.”
Blood shortage in Nigeria
With less than 10 percent of Nigerians donating blood voluntarily, the country is seriously battling the scarcity of blood, resulting to the deaths of citizens living with certain diseases.
In 2013, a former Minister of Health, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, said the country was faced with a situation whereby 60 percent of all blood donations were from commercial donors and 30 percent from family members.
Chukwu also said whereas about 1,336,000 of blood units were required annually in the country, 1,130,000 units of blood were collected through the various types of blood donations.
The deficit, he said, had resulted in a lot of preventable deaths, especially among people living with certain diseases such as the sickle cell anaemia.
Likewise, the founder of LifeBank, Mrs. Temie Giwa-Tubosun, said in April 2016 that blood shortage was a major problem in Nigeria.
According to her, no fewer than 26,000 women lose their lives yearly due to blood shortage.
“Twenty thousand children under the age of five also lose their lives due to lack of blood. One in four patients admitted in the hospital needs blood,” she said, lamenting that the rate of blood donation in the country was low.
“Most countries across the world have 100 per cent voluntary donors, but the case is different in Nigeria with just 10 per cent.”
Challenges facing voluntary blood donation in Nigeria
Stating how the voluntary blood donation platform works, the founder of HHI, Bolarinwa, described the initiative as a “middleman” between those in need of blood, particularly sickle cell patients, and the suppliers.
She said, “We started in 2011 because of the frequent need of sickle cell patients for blood transfusion. It’s like a social network that connects people who are willing to donate their blood freely to those in need.
“We started by contacting friends and friends of friends who then became volunteers. Gradually, the information got out to people and that was how the foundation started.
“People who sign up on our network to donate blood would have indicated their blood group and sometimes genotype to make things easier. We are here to link suppliers with people who need blood.
“Usually, it’s the patients who call us when they need blood and other times doctors in hospitals. Once we get a call, we look for someone who is nearer to the location and send them there to donate their blood.
“For instance, we got a blood request in Cross River State sometime ago and we asked someone to go to the hospital. When we get a request like that from a location that is outside of Lagos and Abuja, we make use of the social media, especially Twitter, to send out the request. Thankfully, we do get responders.
“And it’s not only when blood is needed that we are called. Sometimes when doctors have just transfused blood into someone, they call us to come and replace the blood and we send someone there. For every donor, even though they are not paid, they are given blood-boosting drink and snacks after the exercise. Some are also given transport fare to go and donate blood if it is far from their location.”
Although the network had seen about 1,000 sign-ups since the platform started in 2011, one of the challenges Bolarinwa noted was that some Nigerians were scared of donating their blood due to various reasons.
She said, “There has been a mixed response, which I will say is 50-50. There is a sort of negative stereotype among people. Some people are skeptical of donating blood whereas we have others who can go to any length to do it. For example, we have had someone who travelled all the way from Ikorodu to Badagry in Lagos (89.5km) sometime ago to donate his blood. That’s how empathetic some Nigerians can be.
“Another challenge which I found out is that in Lagos, people want money for donating blood unlike the experience I had in Abuja. These people want to be paid when they donate their blood. I moved to Lagos in 2014 and that was one of the things I noticed among Lagos people. Meanwhile, that does not mean everyone is the same in Lagos. Some have already signed up online. I think people still need awareness.”
Apart from poor awareness, Bolarinwa said some Nigerians were afraid of donating their blood because they think they would die.
“But once you do it once, it’ll not be difficult to continue,” she said, adding that another challenge causing poor blood donation is the attitude of some hospital staff.
She said, “There have been scenarios whereby some donors would go to the hospital and the staff would treat them badly. There was one donor who went for free donation and he was dissed. Probably some hospital staff think our members were only donating their blood to make money from the hospital.
“If such a donor was discouraged, there was no way he would go back there again. Sometimes it’s when patients, that is, those who need blood, are aware of their rights that they can talk to the hospital staff to back off and attend to the donor.”
Other challenges that have been found to hamper voluntary blood donation in the country are due to health-related situations of the donors.
She said, “If someone is overweight or underweight or has low blood pressure or high blood pressure or has low cholesterol, they cannot donate blood. Another challenge is getting certain blood groups.
“That’s why sensitisation is still key. Due to poor awareness among Nigerians, we now take blood donation awareness walks across locations in the country.”
Apart from these, the issue of hygiene and non-professionalism on the part of some hospitals have deterred many volunteer blood donors, Bolarinwa noted.
She said, “Yes, that’s a serious challenge. People tend to be worried about hygiene in hospitals, which is, of course, a very important factor. There was an unfortunate incident sometime ago of a sickle cell patient who needed blood transfusion and he was given the blood of an HIV-infected person.
“Apparently, the hospital did not screen the blood of the donor well before collecting it. I know that Lagos does excellently well when it comes to blood screening, but in some other cities, especially in the North, screening is poor.
To address this challenge, Bolarinwa said the government should help in sensitisation and improving the health care sector.
“Hospitals must also make sure their staff are properly trained and ensure that their equipment are up to date,” she said.
Commending the network of volunteer blood donors, Lagos-based public health expert, Dr. Emmanuel Ogundiran, said it was important that more awareness be raised on voluntary blood donation.
As the world celebrates the Blood Donor Day on June 14, Ogundiran said the movement of voluntary blood donors in the country was in line with WHO’s goal for all countries to obtain all their blood supplies from voluntary unpaid donors by 2020.
He said, “Transfusion of blood and blood products helps save millions of lives every year. It can help patients suffering from life-threatening conditions live longer and with higher quality of life, and supports complex medical and surgical procedures.
“It also has an essential, life-saving role in maternal and perinatal care. Access to safe and sufficient blood and blood products can help reduce rates of death and disability due to severe bleeding during delivery and after childbirth.
“In many countries, including Nigeria, there is no adequate supply of safe blood and blood services face the challenge of making sufficient blood available, while also ensuring its quality and safety.
“Personally, I believe that an adequate supply of blood can only be assured through regular donations by voluntary unpaid blood donors.”