By Mary Hearty

Nearly three in every ten maternal deaths in Africa are attributable to blood shortage, according a new study by Africa Sanguine- an open source journal focusing on promoting science and practice of blood transfusion and related disciplines.

Moreover, an estimated four out of every ten children born with sickle cell disease annually, die with complications that can be solved through adequate safe blood supply and availability of modern therapies like red blood cell exchange.

Nevertheless, the continent is still grappling with failures in certain aspects of the blood supply chain hence, results in the delay in initiating or not providing potentially lifesaving transfusions.

Antoinette Gawin, President and Chief Executive Officer of Terumo BCT

Antoinette Gawin, President and Chief Executive Officer of Terumo Blood and Cell Technologies (Terumo BCT- a global corporation focusing on advancing healthcare, broadening treatment options, and improving patient outcomes through blood and cells therapies), has advised that governments should now consider safe blood as a more important national agenda in order to ensure resources are mobilized more effectively in the blood supply chain.

“There is a challenge of getting the right blood to where it belongs when it is needed,” she stated. “There is no local distribution hence a lot of blood lose power with time. When you collect blood, people think that it is kept in a bank, but actually it expires due to lack of infrastructure in the supply chain.”

Gawin said blood is a significant piece required in personalized medicine, a tool that can be used to treat genetically inherited diseases like sickle cell as our blood is different based on genotypes and phynotypes, hence the need for specific medical care.

“The more we learn about our genetics the more we understand the gene that cause different diseases.”

Sickle cell disease is where the red blood cells are shaped like a sickle instead of a circle, according to Gawin.

In Kenya, the equipment used in such treatments are only available in Nairobi West hospital, Nairobi hospital, Mombasa hospital, and the AghaKhan Hospital.

To ensure access to quality healthcare for all, Gawin suggested that integrating access to these therapies in universal health coverage would help scale up these therapies to marginalized communities as well.

“We already have the technologies used to collect stem cells and also in bone marrow transplant, and another equipment that helps to collect blood, then automatically processes it,” she noted.

So far, the corporation has installed over 30 different equipment across Africa and about 20 are in the process of installation, nevertheless, these are no enough as the bigger percentage of these technologies are only in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Zambia, South Africa and Ethiopia.

In an effort to help close these gaps, the corporation is working towards collaborating with other stakeholders, including the government through healthcare funding to ensure that marginalized communities can also access safe blood for various treatments.

“Our priority is to bring existing technology like equipment that can be used to kill pathogens like malaria parasites in blood, where we can clean it before it gets transfused into someone else,” she explained.

She further elaborated that these innovations, plus adequate blood supply can unlock the power of blood in curing certain diseases like blood cancer, and get to the point where we do not worry about managing these diseases.

She also mentioned the challenge of lack of awareness in terms of blood transfusion as people are afraid of getting diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria. However, Gawin clarified that blood is screened for all of those things.

“We have a way to counter those pathogens to ensure that donated blood is safe.”

We have skilled and trained medical personnel but we do not always have the equipment, whereas other countries might have the equipment but getting the personnel is a challenge.

The shortage of the trained medical personnel with the skills and experience in operating these equipment and also in treating diseases like sickle cell is due to brain drain compounded by lack of infrastructure as they get absorbed in other developed countries.

To address this, she suggested that infrastructure around blood needs to be included in universities so that when medical physician graduates, they can be able to treat these diseases.

The corporation has also collaborated with patient advocacy groups to understand what they need including access to treatment.