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close this bookSafe Blood in Developing Countries - The Lessons from Uganda (EC, 1995, 151 p.)
close this folderSection Two - Background: Uganda's history, health, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic
close this folderChapter Two - Uganda's political and physical health: A brief history
View the documentA. The political background
View the documentB. The health of the nation
View the documentC. Safe and unsafe blood in Uganda

C. Safe and unsafe blood in Uganda

It is important to realise that, like so much else in Ugandan life, the country had a distinguished history in blood transfusion before the time of troubles set in. The British Red Cross Society, Uganda branch, began a blood donor and blood bank programme as long ago as 1958. The Red Cross world-wide is a major contributor to blood donation, providing a quarter to a third of the world's blood supply and about half of the US blood supply. In 1958 the Ministry of Health opened a blood bank laboratory in a wooden hut at Old Mulago Hospital in Kampala. When the New Mulago hospital was opened in 1962, the European and Asian Hospital on Nakasero Hill in Kampala was closed and the Nakasero Blood Bank (NBB) opened in the building that had been the nurses' home. This blood bank developed rapidly to supply all the blood needed by the Kampala hospitals (Mulago, New Mulago, Nsambya, Mengo and Rubaga) and also provided blood, when possible, to other hospitals in Uganda.

By 1974 it was collecting and typing 14,000 units annually (4,000 from voluntary donors recruited by the Uganda Red Cross). The blood bank made its own collecting and giving sets and used resterilised bottles and resharpened needles. The laboratory underwent frequent enlargements and had to add two wooden buildings to accommodate offices and an antenatal screening programme. The space available amounted to a grand total of 320 square metres. The staff rapidly increased, reaching a peak of 120 in 1974. In 1972 Paul Senyonga, who had received specialised training in London, England, and Melbourne, Australia, became the chief technologist in charge. He is in fact still there in 1995. But the years 1976-1986 were years of great difficulty, as everywhere else in Uganda, and the Nakasero Blood Bank declined dramatically. Funding was inconsistent, inflation was drastic (the exchange rate rocketed from 7 Uganda Shillings to 16,000 to the US$), yet the staff salaries remained the same at 2,000 Uganda Shillings for the unskilled rising up to 20,000 Uganda Shillings for the doctor in charge, per month. British aid and the German Red Cross assistance were diverted to other purposes; two mobile blood banks, lavishly fitted out, were supplied by the German Red Cross but never found their way to the NBB.

As stocks of supplies lasted and the staff could find transport, blood collection continued, but each year less and less was provided to the hospitals. The voluntary blood donors became fewer and fewer and hospitals were forced to provide their own blood needs. The mission hospitals, with the advantage of donated supplies, were more successful than the government hospitals in being able to keep up a supply of blood. Hospitals used many different donor recruiting methods but the most frequent was requiring obstetric and surgical patients to provide two blood donors before admission. During the early 1980s resterilisation of blood bottles became very difficult and hospitals began to use imported blood bags whenever they could be obtained.

Management of emergencies became extremely difficult because blood was never ready in the blood bank. If suddenly a severe haemorrhage occurred as a complication of labour or a child was brought in with severe anaemia and cardiac failure, blood would take anywhere from 6 to 12 hours to get, the time needed to solicit blood from relatives, most of whom would not have come with the patient, cross-match and issue it. By this time the patient would either have died or did not need the blood.

The effect of the HIV epidemic was not long in showing itself. By 1986, 9 per cent of all blood donated at the main Mulago teaching hospital in Kampala was positive for HIV. This seroprevalence had risen to 24 per cent in the same population by 1989. Testing blood for HIV-1 before transfusion did start in the main hospitals in Kampala in the last quarter of 1986. This testing was, however, still irregular and because of shortage of blood most emergency transfusions were carried out before the blood could be tested.

It also became apparent that the individuals who were donating blood at the time were not the most suitable. Relatives, when asked to donate blood for the patient, would often go out and find a paid donor to donate. Many donors were recruited, for a fee, by touts working at the hospital gates. These paid donors happened to be the sort of individuals most likely to be HIV positive. It is therefore most likely that before the Uganda Blood Transfusion Service (UBTS) became fully effective again, a lot of patients received HIV infected blood.

The mission hospitals, notably Nsambya, acquired facilities for Elisa tests and started testing blood donations for HIV in 1986, with emergency help from the EC. From 1987 blood donations collected at New Mulago hospital and at the NBB could be tested at the Institute of Public Health with kits donated by the WHO. But HIV testing was not available for the majority of hospitals in other towns in Uganda. Some hospitals in those towns were able to send blood samples to Nsambya hospital, the IPH at Mulago, or the Virus Research Institute at Entebbe. But even so the blood frequently had to be used before the test results were available.

Then in May 1987, the Uganda government with assistance from the World Health Organisation held a donors conference in Kampala to solicit funds for AIDS control. At this conference the EC pledged support for a phased safe blood programme, with a first phase objective of providing 10,000 units of safe blood for hospitals in the Kampala/Entebbe area. How the EC came to make this pioneering intervention, is described in Chapter Four.