KAMPALA – Health authorities in Uganda say the supply of blood has sharply declined since the start of the coronavirus pandemic as fewer people donate and schools remain closed. The consequences are sometimes deadly.
Students, especially those in secondary school, are the largest group of blood donors in the East African country but schools have been closed since March amid efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
This means the government agency charged with collecting blood is failing to meet its targets.
Dr. Emmanuel Batiibwe, the director of a hospital that looks after many of the poorest residents of the capital, Kampala, cited multiple deaths there in recent months related to blood shortages.
One victim was a woman with pregnancy complications. Children under 5 and patients going into surgery are also among those frequently in need of a blood transfusion, he said.
In July, Batiibwe's China-Uganda Friendship Hospital received only 18 of a requisitioned 218 units of blood. The next month 68 of 217 units came in, he said.
“There's a problem somewhere,” he said, calling the shortage a “disaster."
The head of Uganda Blood Transfusion Services, Dr. Dorothy Byabazaire, told lawmakers earlier this year that her agency collected 56,850 units of a targeted 75,000 between April and July.
Facilities across the country submit blood orders to the agency, and there is a sharing mechanism among facilities in the event of emergencies. But “borrowing” blood can be time-consuming, Batiibwe said.
The Uganda Red Cross, which helps authorities to mobilize blood donors, said it hasn't been easy to recruit donors during the pandemic. The country has confirmed more than 8,600 coronavirus cases, including 79 deaths.
“People don't feed well anymore. People are stressed,” said spokeswoman Irene Nakasiita, adding that some willing, potential donors are turned away because their blood levels are too low.
Similar challenges were echoed by Ariho Franco, a donor recruiter for a blood bank operated by Kampala's private Mengo Hospital, who said that while schools are closed they are focusing on public places. They have set up tents in locations such as the public square in central Kampala. Donors receive soda and cookies.
“The blood shortage is a serious problem because the few people who are out there that we are able to reach are unable to donate due to various reasons," Franco said.
He said blood collection teams are facing challenges in finding donors among communities reeling from the economic impacts of the pandemic. Some people say they are not sure where their next meal will come from, he said.
“At the end of the day some people may only survive by the mercy of God since the little blood that will have been collected will only be reserved for serious emergencies,” he said.
Blood shortages have been reported elsewhere, including in parts of Europe.
Local media in Romania have cited fear of COVID-19 infections among the reasons for a decline in the number of blood donors. The cities of Iasi and Cluj face a dire situation as some cancer patients needing frequent transfusions and people needing urgent surgery have had to bring their own donors to survive.
Vadim Ghirda in Bucharest, Romania, contributed.