SEATTLE, Washington — Half of the world’s blood donations are collected in high-income countries, where 76% of all transfusions are used for adult populations over 65 years of age. However, lower-income countries use up to 65% of blood transfusions for children under 5 years of age and only receive half of the world’s total blood donations. Countries like Kenya experience a shortage of essential blood supply due to a prevalence of illnesses and limited access to medical supplies and infrastructure. Kenya partnered with the Africa Society of Blood Transfusion and the United States in 2010 to create the Technical Assistance for the Implementation and Expansion of Blood Safety Activities in Kenya program. This initiative helped build medical infrastructure to supply the Kenyan population with essential and safe blood. However, as of September 2019, the U.S. government is no longer funding Kenya’s blood initiative activities.
Why Kenya Needs Safe Blood
The Kenyan National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS) reports that every 10 minutes, seven new Kenyans require a blood transfusion. Blood transfusions are used for many different reasons, including surgery, injury or disease. In 2019, Kenya’s blood supply was below 20% of what its medical system demands. The lack of blood supply has resulted in deaths that would otherwise be preventable.
Moreover, childhood anemia is highly prevalent in Kenya. The World Health Organization estimated in 2016 that 41% of children in Kenya are anemic. In severe cases of anemia, children may require a blood transfusion. As Kenya’s safe blood supply is reported to be below half of what is required, many children will not have access to a blood transfusion. Untreated childhood anemia increases the chances of child mortality, growth stunting and waste issues.
The U.S. originally initiated the funding initiative for Kenya to support its fight against HIV/AIDS. In the process of decreasing the spread of the disease, Kenya identified the need for safe transfusions. Providing safe blood transfusions to the Kenyan population is a significant factor in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and syphilis, all of which place a heavy burden on the Kenyan healthcare system.
The Role of U.S. Funding
The U.S. government has contributed $72.5 million to Kenya’s safe blood program. As a result of this funding, Kenya has built infrastructure and trained staff to increase safe blood access. Additionally, the Kenyan NBTS was established in 2000 with the U.S. government’s help. Since this establishment, six regional and 21 smaller satellite blood transfusion centers have opened. The satellite centers travel to schools and universities to collect blood for future transfusions. These 27 centers provide much-needed access to blood transfusions for the Kenyan population.
Moreover, the WHO has reported a decrease in childhood anemia in Kenya from 2009 to 2016, showing that the program improved anemia cases. In 2009, the childhood anemia rate was 48.9%. This number then decreased annually to reach 41.1% in 2016. Many factors can be attributed to the decrease in childhood anemia cases. However, one of these attributing factors was the increased access to safe blood transfusions. Having access to blood transfusions can quickly treat childhood anemia, decreasing the risks of recurring cases and infant mortality.
The Effects of Cutting Funds
The recent funding cut to Kenya’s safe blood program has caused Kenya’s blood supply to diminish rapidly. Recently, individuals in need of blood have taken to using social media and other self-managed methods to seek out donors. As most U.S. funding went to essential supplies and training for staff, many in need of blood transfusions are desperately trying to find alternative means of obtaining blood, yet this opens a range of opportunities to contract infections and diseases.
Furthermore, the abrupt cut to this funding is putting Kenya’s safe blood program under further pressure. The initiative reportedly struggled to encourage people to donate due to a lack of awareness and education. A large portion of donations for Kenya’s blood supply came from the satellite centers visiting schools and universities, with only 30% of donations occurring outside of education centers. However, blood donations have severely decreased with education closures due to COVID-19. The funding cuts were announced when Kenya’s blood supply was already low. These supplies have continued to decline with the lack of donations and external blood shipments entering the country.
The U.S. currently spends less than 1% of the annual budget on foreign aid. The infrastructure and training that was implemented surrounding Kenya’s safe blood program have shown to be crucial in saving lives. The U.S.’s foreign aid funding cuts have put Kenya’s medical system in a position where it cannot reach or maintain suitable blood supply levels. More than ever, global support and foreign aid are crucial to overcoming the pandemic challenges and ending global poverty.