18 July 2010

Africa: Killer Blood Transfusions Targeted in the Fight Against HIV

The World Health Organization estimates that 5-10 percent of all HIV infections in Africa occur as a result of unsafe blood transfusions.

In order to address this problem, the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has committed $18 million in an effort to reduce the transmission of HIV in African healthcare clinics and hospitals.

At present, unscreened blood and unclean injections are the two main reasons for the spread of HIV infection in medical systems. The new initiative begins in Kenya and will train healthcare workers in safe blood draw practices and support the Kenyan National HIV/AIDS Strategic Plan to eliminate HIV transmission in healthcare by 2013.

"Ensuring that medical injections are safe for patients, health workers, and communities is a critical prevention intervention," Erik Friedly, health communications specialist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Global AIDS program told MediaGlobal. "Preventing new infections represents the only long-term, sustainable means to stem the global HIV pandemic."

Savanna Reid, a researcher on contract for the World Health Organization (WHO) explained: "The injection risks far outweigh the risks from transfusions because of the rampant overuse of injections in developing countries." Reid estimates that up to 17 percent of all HIV infections in Africa in 2007 were due to unsafe medical injections, including reusing contaminated syringes and needles. "Unsafe medical injections are acting as a bridge between high risk groups and the general population."

The second way HIV is spread in the medical system is through unscreened blood. Dr. Neelam Dhingra, coordinator for WHO Blood Transfusion Safety, says a big reason HIV is transmitted through blood transfusions is because of the low number of blood donors. According to Dhingra, "Blood safety is known to be particularly compromised where blood shortages pose pressure on services to collect and issue blood without adequate donor recruitment, donor selection, and blood screening. The most recent available data [from 2008] shows that in 77 countries, donation rates are still well below the level required to meet patients' needs." Due to the lack of blood donors, doctors are forced to use the blood they have, even if there is the possibility the patient is infected with HIV.

Acknowledging these areas of potential risk, healthcare workers will be better equipped to carry out procedures properly and thus lessen the number of HIV cases occurring in healthcare settings.

Although the initiative began in Kenya, PEPFAR plans to expand the initiative to over eight African countries including: Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa. "Blood safety continues to be an important component of PEPFAR's comprehensive prevention program and an essential investment for the development of sustainable health systems," Friedly stated. "The U.S. government will continue to support blood safety activities through both PEPFAR and the broader Global Health Initiative."

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