Nigeria’s healthcare system has for many years, been faced with a lot of challenges. One of the most pressing is blood scarcity, and a lot of people have lost their lives simply because they needed blood to stay alive, which was unavailable.

Haima Health initiative is solving this challenge.

While connecting blood donors to those in need of blood, it’s also changing the perception of Nigerians towards blood donation. 

In this interview with the founder, Bukola Bolarinwa, a Lawyer and president of the Sickle Cell Aid Foundation (SCAF), she revealed more about what Haima Health Initiative is doing and her passion to improve the healthcare sector in Nigeria.

Tell us about Haima Health

Haima Health aims to solve the blood shortage problem by creating the largest database of voluntary blood donors in Nigeria. We help patients and hospitals get blood by sending them donors close to them.

We also carry out blood drives to ensure blood banks are stocked up. Finally we aim to educate young people on the importance of blood donation to get to 100% voluntary non-remunerated blood donation by 2020.

What inspired the idea for this?

In my work with SCAF, we would receive numerous requests for blood donors as people living with SCD require frequent transfusions.

We realized that there were massive shortages in blood donors but also there was an inefficient system of recruitment of donors and lack of technology in bridging the gap between willing donors and patients in need. We have all seen those forwarded messages online asking for blood in particular hospitals. Haima aims to bridge this gap.

What processes does it take for people who want to donate blood, and for those who are in dire need of blood?

To become a blood donor, simply register at http://register.haimahealth.org.ng/enroll, we will send you messages inviting you for blood drives and call you if a donor needs blood around you.

Requests for blood can be placed at http://register.haimahealth.org.ng/donor-request or by calling the number on our website www.haimahealth.org.ng.

A Blood Donor

How do you sensitize people and encourage them to become blood donors?

Blood donation holds a lot of stigma in Nigeria because there is a lot of misinformation and fear associated with it. We explain the benefits to the donor, which include reducing the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and stimulating new cell production.

In addition, one pint of blood could save three lives because each component of blood can be used for a different patient. We also explain the type of patients that could be saved by their blood including women in labour, patients with cancer, anemia and leukemia.

Tell us about your successes since launch

Since launching we have registered over a thousand voluntary donors who have donated over 500 pints of blood to patients.

We have worked in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Kaduna and Ibadan, with plans to expand in more states. We have also designed a mobile app to make the process of linking donors to patients more efficient.

What are the challenges you’ve faced since you started running Haima Health?

There have been numerous challenges but by far the biggest has been trying to change the perceptions of people towards blood donation. It is difficult because of traditional beliefs, fear, misinformation and distrust of the healthcare system. A lot of people believe that their blood will be sold and are thus reluctant to donate for free.

The expectation to be paid for donation is particularly acute in Lagos because there is a well-established blood black market. The hospital staff can also pose challenges with their bureaucracy and lack-luster attitude. Finally, like with all social enterprises, we have also struggled with gaining funding to execute our ideas.

How would describe the level of sickle cell awareness amongst Nigerians?

Sickle cell awareness levels vary across the country from the urban, semi urban to the rural. In urban areas, there is a general awareness of what sickle cell is even if most people do not know their genotype or the difference between genotype and blood group. In most rural areas, there is very little knowledge about the disease, how it is passed down and how to manage it.

The way it is taught in secondary schools is also flawed because we are told that there is a one in four chance that a child can have SCD when both parents are carriers of the gene (i.e AS). We are not told that it is a one in four chance in EACH pregnancy, which means that a family could have all their children with SCD or none at all. It is what we call a genetic lottery.

Another misconception is that people with SCD do not live into adulthood. While it is correct there is high infant mortality with SCD with most children not making it beyond five years old, a large part of this is because SCD is not diagnosed and most times children are treated for malaria and other symptoms and not SCD.

However, a large number of people with SCD go on to live long, active and fulfilled lives. The oldest woman with SCD in the world is Mrs. Laguda who is now 93 living very well in Lagos. With proper health care and a strong support system, most sickle cell warriors can live well.

What inspires you?

People living with SCD and any other health conditions in Nigeria inspire me. Living in Nigeria is tough for everyone, but living with any health challenges is expensive, isolating and frustrating. Our goal is to ease their burdens in the little way we can.

What has been your most exciting moment since you began Haima Health?

Winning the Queens Young Leaders Award has definitely been the highlight of my volunteering. I took part in a Cambridge University leadership course; met inspiring young people from across the commonwealth, met Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Harry in a lovely ceremony in Buckingham Palace. It felt inspiring to have our work recognized and validated the importance of making a difference in little ways.