Something special: donating blood

14 June 2014 was the “World Blood Donor Day”. Members of the NHW team recently visited the Nigerian National Blood Transfusion Service and subsequently joined them on one of their blood drives. We bring you an account of our visit which was followed by donating blood ourselves. Read our story and go off yourself to donate blood. 
Tunde is 40. I met him on my way into the Nigerian National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS) in Abuja. He was leaving with a group of 5 friends. We chatted briefly, and he told me that, rather than throw a big birthday party this year, he had decided to do something special; give blood. He explained that he could not imagine a better source of happiness at the moment than the knowledge that, a few hours later, this singular act of his may save someone else’s life.
In a quiet street in Wuse Zone 3 in Abuja lies the National Headquarters of the National Blood Transfusion Service, which is actually still a Department of the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Health. The importance of a blood transfusion service has been especially highlighted in Nigeria recently because of the recent spate of violence. 

The headquarters of the National Blood Transfusion Service
Speaking to the passionate leader of the service, Dr Oluwatoyin Smith, I can immediately see that the work that she and her colleagues do means a lot to her. She tells me about the history of the service, their achievements and the challenges of keeping it running. 
“Each unit of blood costs us about N100,000 to screen with ELISA technology for four important blood-borne infections, namely HIV, Hepatitis B and C viruses and syphilis, and we make this available to patients at N2,000” 
This is only possible because of a generous subsidy funded by international donor agencies, primarily the US Centres for Disease Control. The NBTS has 11 operational centres across Nigeria; in Abuja, Kaduna, Owerri, Ibadan, Lokoja, Jos, Maiduguri, Port-Harcourt, Benin City, Nangere – Potiskum, and Abeokuta.
Dr Smith explains that, while increased publicity through radio jingles and social media has led to a significant increase in volunteer blood donors, 90% of blood donations in Nigeria still come from commercial donors and family/replacement donors. This needs to change, and the NBTS is being very proactive in trying to change the culture around blood transfusion. Their major strategy in this regard is by approaching large organisations – faith based organisations, tertiary institutes and large corporates to support blood donation drives. Last Sunday (22 June 2014), they worked with the Family Worship Centre in Kubwa, Abuja. These blood drives are done every weekend, in addition to the daily blood collections on weekdays at their headquarters.

Dr Toyin Smith (right) and members of her team
While the terrorist attacks have definitely led to an increased awareness for the need of blood transfusions, it is actually not the most important indicator in Nigeria. The sad reality is that, because of our poor ambulance services and poor onsite medical resuscitation capacity, a very small portion of all those who survive terrorist attacks or indeed vehicle accidents are likely to live long enough to benefit from blood transfusions. The main driver for blood transfusion in Nigeria is bleeding by women during childbirth, and this is ultimately the most important reason that we have one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in the world. Severe bleeding after birth can kill a healthy woman within hours if she is unattended. This highlights the importance of the work the NBTS is doing, but it needs to be done consistently, so that the blood is ready and available when needed. We all have a role to play, (including you and me) to visit any of the NBTS centres around the country to  donate blood. At the moment, the rate of voluntary blood donations at the Abuja centre is back to a paltry 5 donations per day, down from the over 500 people that donated blood after the last bombings in April.
Mrs Akubuiro is the Donor Care Manager at the NBTS, and she led me round the centre, professionally explaining their process in managing blood donations. The process is efficient and easy, and donors are in and out in no time. There is an increasing number of regular donors who get text messages reminding them of their next appointment. Men can safely donate up to four times a year, while this is limited to three times a year for women.

Mrs Akubuiro in the blood donation room
Despite the challenges of working in our environment, it is hard not to be proud of this group of colleagues. Yet I could see what a lick of paint and some infrastructure could do for the centre. Assisting with these issues would be a perfect opportunity for one of the large Nigerian corporates to partner with the NBTS and support them in the good work that they are doing. 
I left the NBTS proud of their efforts and achievements on the one hand yet troubled by the reluctance of Nigerians to donate blood. We leave a lot of things to prayer in our dear country but this is one thing that is actually in our own hands. 
After our visit to the head office, the Nigeria Health Watch team joined the NBTS blood drive in Kubwa. The tent in whose shade the blood donation took place had been erected next to the Ignobis hotel in Kubwa, Abuja. Mrs. Akubuiro was “on ground” to show us around and explained the entire process to us.
First, you need to fill out a form. It’s a bit long, but the form is there to ensure the well-being of both donor and recipient. Then, your blood pressure and hemoglobin level are measured to make sure that it is safe for you to donate. Only when everything is fine are you be led to lay down and give blood. Donors are well looked after by the NTBS staff before, during and after the donation with bites and drinks. After all the health checks, we donated blood right then; and it felt like royalty! This one act may save a woman from bleeding to death during child birth, nothing could feel better. 

A member of Nigeria Health Watch donating blood
Now that you are done reading … do something really special today, go to the Abuja centre or one of the 16 others across the country and donate blood. You truly cannot beat the feeling you’ll get. Remember one of Goethe’s famous quotes? “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

The Headquaters of the Nigerian Blood Transfusion Service is located at No. 39 Abidjan Street, Wuse Zone 3, Abuja. They are open during official working hours to collect blood from walk-in visitors. For details visit their website at doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

Chikwe Ihekweazu is an epidemiologist and consultant public health physician. He is the Editor of Nigeria Health Watch, and the Managing Partner of EpiAfric (, which provides expertise in public health research and advisory services, health communication and professional development. He previously held leadership roles at the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the UK's Health Protection Agency. Chikwe has undertaken several short term consultancies for the World Health Organisation, mainly in response to major outbreaks. He is a TED Fellow and co-curator of TEDxEuston.

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