Malawi blood sellers tell their story

They have laid it bare. They are into the business of selling blood and they have no apologies. You want a piece of them, nothing comes for free,none more so than blood, which they say is priceless.

This is the tale of blood sellers in Malawi’s lakeshore district of Mangochi who have discovered a means of supplementing their income by saving lives for a price.

Nation on Sunday went undercover to Mangochi District Hospital to find out how the ‘bloody’ transaction is done. The sources preferred anonymity because they “donate” the blood on the pretext of being patients’ relatives.

Situated amid hawkers and tuck shops, the hospital is easy to miss along a stretch of merchandise displays whose air is filled with loud Islamic music, typical of a Friday afternoon in a largely Muslim society.

Booming business

The sun blazing high in the sky and crowds moving up and down the long stretch from the bus depot, a green gate on the right side bears no sign to symbolise the medical institution.

As you walk through the gate, a small house for security guards greets you. A glance into the immediate distance shows signs of lively hospital buildings.

The scene does not immediately scream out as one with a booming blood business. It is tranquil with people going about their normal business.

There are no people lying in wait for potential buyers and, indeed, no one carrying a plastic bag of the merchandise to offer to passers-by as normal vending has come to constitute.

An inquiry into how the blood can be bought leads the reporter to one of the donors who claimed to be the in-charge. He said stranded patients contact him and he liaises with others in the group when he cannot give blood before the six months elapse.

Otherwise, he has given his blood to three different patients (three pints) in one month because the money is good.

Said the source: “I made about K45 000 [$150] that month because the prices differ. Every donor decides how much his blood will cost and prices range from K7 000 [$23] to K15 000 [$50]. We believe it is our blood and we are free to do with it as we please. Who can stop us?

“Blood donors include cyclists running bicycle taxis, the working class and the general business community. We are usually contacted when relatives of a recipient do not have the right blood group for the patient. We are always on stand-by and ready on call.”

Blood screening

Sitting with two friends who are also into the business, the donor described the procedure as requiring the donor to go to the hospital for a preliminary check of how much blood he has and his blood type. After the screening, once the blood is given, the rest remains between the donor and patients’ guardians.

He claims that hospital personnel are not aware of this business even though it started seven years ago.

One of his colleagues, a guard, agrees, saying his last blood sale was last month when he sold a pint for K8 000 (about $26). Ironically, he was admitted to the same hospital in August after contracting a venereal disease from a co-worker.

Said the guard: “I am employed at a private home and there is this maid. By golly, she is a beauty and while I realise the dangers of HIV in particular, you look at this woman and all caution is thrown to the wind. I had the protection with me at the time, but I decided to have her raw. Now, I am paying the price because I have not recovered fully but it was worth it.”

He went on to display a small plastic bag harbouring five condoms and his voter registration card, claiming that almost every man in Mangochi moves with protection, but will decide when to use it. At this point, the in-charge of the blood business, who also displayed his own pack of condoms, chips in to agree with his friend while a third nods approvingly at the claims.

They said sex in Mangochi is not an issue and it does not have a time. They challenged to get a woman for their colleague so the reporter could record the incident if she so wished, pointing to the direction of a rest house just behind the hospital.

“We call it kumikeka because everything is done on a reed mat with no beddings. It is usually crowded and even if you go there now, people are on queues awaiting their turn. It is always busy because we pay only K100 [about 33 cents]. Another K100 for the woman and you have your satisfaction,” said the guard.

Blood buyers

Amid all the sexual hullabaloo, the district seems to be the only one offering blood for sell.

One of the patients who bought blood at the hospital said she was told about its unavailability, prompting her to seek it elsewhere.

Her boss Seodi White, national coordinator of the Women and Law in Southern Africa (Wlsa), blew the whistle to the media when she had to pay K15 000 (about $50) for two pints the woman needed for a transfusion

Said the patient: “I faced hostility at the hospital following the publication of the article in the media. I had to flee eventually because some medical personnel were accusing me of jeopardising their jobs.”

She said she bought the blood from a cyclist.

Ministry of Health spokesperson Henry Chimbali yesterday said government is still investigating the matter.

“It is unfortunate if these things are happening. We intend to find out whether the sales are done from a genuine shortage of blood or other factors,” he said.

It is estimated that Malawi requires at least 80 000 units of blood per year. As of July 2011- June 2012 financial year, Malawi Blood Transfusion Service (MBTS) only managed to collect 52 000 units, representing 65 percent of the national requirement.

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