As a nation, we’ve come from far on blood donation
I first trained my attention on blood when, as a child, I heard murmurs about the important role it had played in the Mau Mau uprising, which, in the 1950s had made Nyeri its hub. Blood, said the hushed tones, had bonded the fighters and energised their commitment to liberate Kenya at whatever cost.
While I did not understand it, I instinctively respected this ‘blood thing’ because according to my mother and in-house pastor, Gladys Nyawira, I had an everlasting life because Jesus had shed his blood for me. That, too, confused me.
But it did not matter: I had developed a reverence for blood that has carried through adulthood and, as Cabinet Secretary for Health, compelled me to place reforms on blood systems on my priority list. I thank God that it has paid off.
Recently, I joined delegates from Eastern and Southern Africa for the region’s first-ever Kenya-sponsored conference on blood, Damu KE, and found myself lurking on unfamiliar, emotional turf. Standing in a room in which an award ceremony was to be held in honour of individuals who have selflessly given of themselves to save the lives of others through blood donation, I could not help but notice the beautiful mosaic of religious organisations, people from educational institutions and voluntary groups each of which regularly hosts blood drives to which their members contribute.
There were Kenyans from all walks of life, government officials, the private sector, young and old, rich and poor all on the same podium. We acknowledged the Kenya Defence Forces and Kenya Police, particularly the Police training school whose recruits and officers regularly donate blood in large numbers and then, as part of the evening’s highlight, recognised two outstanding Kenyans.
Kennedy Sanya, a public prosecutor in Nakuru has been donating blood for the past 28 years and will be making his 100th donation the next time he volunteers to do so, and Mombasa’s Aisha Dafalla who has donated blood 67 times.
I can unreservedly say this evening represented one of the most magical events I have ever attended because it showcased humanity at its best. Here we were, together, united in giving the gift of life…without coercion or payment. And further sweetening the event was the journey to get there.
Far from this kindness, was the cruel, crippled blood management system that I had inherited when I took office. A situational analysis had pointed to blood shortages so perennial that they had, among others, all but bankrupted citizen confidence in the public healthcare system.
There was evidence of theft and trafficking of human blood, and to my horror, an array of statistics pointed to fatalities from surgeries, accidents, cancer treatment, kidney ailments and childbirth caused by the insufficient blood supply. I was faced with the only choice—curing the malady—and drastically elevating the ministry’s capacity to collect blood from the 16 per cent of the million blood units required.
We’ve come a long way. Thanks to countless hours from the team of professionals, my ministry has been able to reconfigure the roadmap for blood transfusion and transplant services. The new system is not only ironclad when it comes to safeguarding against mischief but it has also adapted the integrated governance and management approach to implementation that is captured in the Health Act, 2017—where part IX focuses on blood, tissues, gametes and organs. Kenya has aligned herself with the WHO’s recommendations for member States handling Human Derived Medical Products and today, the country has expanded service delivery into 45 counties, 36 of which have blood banks under renovation. We have fully functional blood testing centres in Nairobi, Kisumu, Eldoret, Embu, Nakuru and Mombasa.
For the first time, Kenya has a supply of blood bags and testing reagents sufficient to last a few years and laws to protect privacy and test results. Is it any wonder why over the past 17 months, 480,000 Kenyans donated blood and blood products? The products were used by over 450,000 patients who received them confidently thanks to the comfort our screening capacity created. In addition to screening for blood type or sickle cell trait, we now have the capacity to test over 650,000 units for HIV, syphilis, Hepatitis B and C annually, and growing.
I celebrate Kenyans for their unwavering willingness to always help others in need. We are a people innately kind to each other notwithstanding our own situations.
The ministry has prioritised the establishment of the just gazetted Kenya Tissue and Transplant Authority which will seek to fast-track searches on the availability and matching of organs with people in need, and I can only hope the flagship project will attract you, the Kenyan and people living in Kenya, to donate tissue and organs in the same spirit you have been donating blood.
— The writer is Cabinet Secretary of Health