Blood is big business in Cameroon

The term “blood money” has come to have new meaning in Cameroon, where certain patients and their families complain that a brisk trade in trafficked blood has led to shortages in hospitals.

“Getting hold of a pouch of blood for a patient who has urgent need of it can be an experience akin to Calvary,” said Martin Djomo, the husband of someone who is dependent on blood transfusions.

Twice a month, Djomo’s wife visits a hospital to get the transfusions that help her deal with a kidney disorder.

“The officials in charge of the Haematology Service always claim that the blood bank is empty. But, I can see pouches of blood being handed from one person to another in front of me,” said Djomo. “A nurse told me to do something about it, so I paid out 15 000 CFA francs (about $28) two days ago. We still haven’t been helped.”

By all accounts, Cameroonians are naturally reluctant to donate blood.

Nadine Kemmogne, a physician at Yaoundé Central Hospital (l’Hôpital central de Yaoundé, HCY), said that this stems from a general disinterest amongst members of the public — who are only moved to action when a sick relative is in need of blood. Other potential donors fear discovering that they are HIV-positive.

However, it appears that blood trafficking by health workers is also an important factor behind blood shortages. Doctors and nurses stand accused of selling stolen blood to compensate for their low salaries — sometimes with the complicity of blood donors.

Authorities at HCY, one of the country’s main health facilities, have tried to remedy the problem by asking the family of each patient who requires transfusions to volunteer two donors who can assist in replenishing the blood bank. When a patient has no family, the hospital puts the same request to the people who brought the patient in for care.

All blood donations remain voluntary, however. According to HCY’s haematology service, the facility had only 3 000 donors for the 6 000 patients in need of blood between December 2003 and June 2004. (Private clinics, with their smaller intake of patients, do not appear to be experiencing the same problems with blood supplies.)

Bernard Chetcha, an official in the HCY’s Haematology Service, denied that blood trafficking posed a serious problem at the hospital.

“It would seem that some workers do traffic blood, but such cases are only here and there. When we discover them, they are severely punished,” he said.

But, to what extent are instances of illegal blood sales reported by those who observe them?

According to a doctor who asked to remain anonymous, “The relatives of patients do not want to squeal on workers guilty of trafficking because they’re afraid of reprisals (against the patients).” Instead, the relatives end up supporting the illegal blood trade by paying the higher prices asked of them.

According to the Blood Transfusion Centre of HCY, the official cost of a 450-millilitre pouch of blood is about $13. This amount, says Chetcha, covers the cost of testing and storing the blood. On the black market, the same amount of blood can sell for as much as $38.

Despite fears of reprisals, certain patients and their relatives have complained to the Cameroonian League for Human Rights about the illegal blood trade.

“They (health workers) operate day and night, and no longer even bother trying to hide what they do,” says Henri Mpoudi, a spokesman for the league.

“There are many more blood collection campaigns now than before, but afterwards, do you know where the collected blood goes?” he asks, adding “There is a massive trafficking mafia around blood donations, and that’s why we have shortages.”

This “trafficking mafia” is said to be particularly active in stealing O-negative blood, sometimes referred to as the “universal” blood type because it can be transfused into people from other blood groups without causing an adverse reaction.

“I went to HCY in 2002 to donate blood for my brother, who had been involved in a traffic accident,” said a woman who chose to be identified as Milène Bangot. “Since the staff there became aware that I am O-negative, they regularly phone me and ask to buy my blood.”

“I never agreed. (But) at the beginning of this year they were very persistent, and said they would pay me 10 000 CFA francs (almost $19) for a transfusion.”

Inevitably, concerns have also arisen about whether trafficked blood has been screened for HIV.

This is despite the fact that the haematology service in each hospital is provided with the equipment necessary to test blood ‒ and that the law forbids health workers from administering blood to patients before it has been screened. — IPS

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