Somali doctors open war-scarred nation’s only public blood bank

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When Somalia’s biggest bomb blast killed more than 500 people in 2017, Dr. Ahmed Abdikadir Mohamed watched helplessly as many of the injured bled to death.

Exactly one year later, in October 2018, Mohamed opened Benadir Blood Service, Somalia’s first public blood bank since 1991.

The bank, run by a team of 20 volunteer doctors, nurses, and lab technicians, delivers life-saving donations to most Mogadishu hospitals.

“We are happy to work at this blood bank…the country has no other blood bank and there is a dire need,” said 32-year-old Mohamed. While private hospitals have their own small banks, Benadir is the only public one.

“Those who die due to lack of blood are more than those who are killed by bullets,” he estimates.

Lack of access to safe blood is a major cause of maternal death. Each year, 5,000 Somali women die from childbirth complications, according to 2017 data from the United Nations Children’s Fund, the latest year for which data was available. That same year, there were 740 terror-related deaths, according to the Global Terrorism Index.

In addition to pregnant women and victims of violence, recipients of donated blood include people with chronic disease.

“I have had kidney problems for a long time… my kidneys undergo dialysis. This place helps me… they give me free blood. Thank God,” Moalim Rage Ali Irole told Reuters.

One challenge is convincing people to donate. Some of the stigma around donation decreased in the wake of the Oct. 2017 bombings when the government called on citizens to donate, but misconceptions remain, said Mohamed.

One man who brought his sick mother told Mohamed that he would die if he donated blood.

“This is something strange within the community; they think one will die if one donates,” said Mohamed. But the team explained its safety and eventually convinced him to donate.

But for 20-year-old Mohamed Haji Hussein, donating has become a source of pride.

“I donate my blood for the Somalis I understand there is lack of blood: that is why I donate it. To save people,” he told Reuters.

Mohamed said other challenges include equipment shortages and scraping together the $700 monthly operating fees.

The bank stores about 100 units of blood. One unit can save up to three lives, according to WHO.