GABORONE (Reuters) - Neo Modibedi says she owes her life to an
emergency blood transfusion after childbirth.
"I nearly died. I felt dizzy, was disorientated and when I got to
the hospital they told me my life was in danger and I had lost a
lot of blood. I only felt better after I was given a blood
transfusion," said Modibedi, now 31.
Modibedi was lucky. In Botswana, which until recently had the
world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS, contaminated blood can easily
turn a life-saving transfusion into a death sentence.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says up to 10 percent of
HIV/AIDS infections worldwide are caused by contaminated blood
transfusions or blood products.
A new project called "Pledge 25" recruits young people to supply
Botswana's hospitals with safe blood and educates them on how to
stay free of the HIV virus that causes AIDS.
"The project targets in-school and out-of-school youth," said Dr
Mukendi Kaembe, a National Blood Transfusion Service pathologist
at the Princess Marina Hospital in the capital Gaborone.
"This is because most of them are not yet sexually active, which
means they are still free from HIV. The project aims at making
donors pledge to donate blood 25 times in their lifetime -- hence
young people," Kaembe said.
The U.S.-based Safe Blood for Africa Foundation has helped
Botswana's health ministry with Pledge 25 and other programmes to
improve the quality and supply of blood.
Pledge 25 is based on a model which originated in neighbouring
Zimbabwe and has been copied as far away as Malawi and Uganda,
Haiti and India, according to WHO.
In Botswana, the programme is being piloted in a handful of
places but given its success, it is now due to go nationwide.
The Foundation says projects like this have helped double
Botswana's supply of safe blood in the past two years as well as
halving the amount of HIV-infected blood donated through better
screening of donors and counselling.
"We've added an element to the programme which basically counsels
the kids to have an HIV-free lifestyle ... It's not just about
donations," said Jeff Busch, a U.S. investment banker who founded
Safe Blood for Africa after witnessing the problems that clinics
around Africa face finding safe blood.
Botswana's life-prolonging HIV/AIDS treatment programme, funded
by diamond dollars and U.S. aid, is already a model for other
African countries at the epicentre of the AIDS pandemic, and now
its safe blood donor scheme could also lead the way.
Building on its Botswana experience, Safe Blood for Africa has
already started a similar pilot called "Club 25" in Nigeria,
which is re-launching its blood transfusion service from scratch
after years of neglect under military rule left people dependent
on unregulated suppliers, increasing the risk of infection.
It is impossible to be 100 percent sure that donated blood is
HIV-free due to a "window period" of several weeks after a person
contracts the virus, during which it does not show on tests but
is nevertheless infectious.
That makes donor counselling and screening vital, to make sure
people who may have contracted HIV through unsafe sex during the
preceding weeks do not give blood.
"You can not have 100 percent HIV-free blood (but) if you do it
properly with repeat donors and questioning of donors, you can be
above 99.9 percent HIV-free," Busch said.
Safe Blood for Africa has hired and trained blood collection
experts, donor recruitment specialists and scientists to screen
donors and test blood to ensure donations are free of HIV,
hepatitis, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The group is also educating donors on how to avoid HIV.
"The most assuring thing that showed us that the project was
working tremendously is the fact that the percentage of discarded
blood has come down dramatically. This convinced me that people
are keeping themselves clean and free of HIV," the National Blood
Transfusion Service's Kaembe said.
Thato Leetile, 18, donates blood three times a year and says
Pledge 25 has helped her stay healthy.
"I've been donating since 2003. This has helped me maintain my
HIV status because we have been taught safe sex practices," says
Leetile, a lively university student in the second year of a
business administration course in Gaborone.
As well as improving their own chance of surviving an epidemic
that has infected nearly two in five adults here, young donors
are encouraged by knowing they are helping saving lives -- like
that of Modibedi.
Sitting in her house in a middle-class neighbourhood of
Botswana's capital Gaborone, her baby daughter Maduo asleep in a
cot nearby, Modibedi praises the Pledge 25 volunteers.
"I believe it's very good that other people can donate blood
because I nearly died."