In Senegal, whenever there is an urgent need for a transfusion, doctors have to delve into thick paper registers to find compatible donors. In Dakar, two young engineers have developed an application that allows blood banks to save time, and therefore — lives.
This article is the third episode of an exploration entitled "11 African Solutions for the Future World" originally published in French on Heidi.news.
What if, 22 years ago, no anonymous compatible blood donors had shown up at the central hospital in Dakar, the capital of Senegal? What if the donor arrived three hours later? Would the five-year-old child bleeding on a makeshift stretcher have survived? These questions haunt Jean-Luc Semedo to this day.
"That car accident almost cost me my life. I needed an emergency transfusion before I could be operated on. Miraculously, I was able to be transfused quickly enough. But many Senegalese don't have that chance.”
The accident forged the 27-year-old's character and ambitions. Throughout his studies as a telecommunications design engineer, Jean-Luc Semedo worked to find a solution to the problem of insufficient blood donations that almost killed him as a child. In 2015, he came up with the idea of creating Hope, an application that digitizes the management of blood donations in blood centres.
Read the article in French: «Hope», l'app sénégalaise qui sauve des vies en optimisant les dons du sang
From blood type, place of residence, telephone contact, to medical history: Hope enables health care staff to digitize the information of each donor and optimize blood inventory management. With the application, medical centres can locate potential compatible donors when a patient needs an emergency transfusion to survive. It is also a way to know in real-time the exact composition of blood stocks in order to avoid shortages, which are common in this West African country.
With only 6.1 donations per 1,000 inhabitants, Senegal is far from being self-sufficient in blood products, which is ensured when there are on average more than 10 donations per 1,000 people, based on World Health Organization (WHO) standards. Senegal is not the only African country to face this public health problem. On the continent, the average is around 4.9 donations per 1000 inhabitants, again according to the WHO. With about five million donations per year, only half of the need for blood products is met in Africa.
"The low number of blood donations on the continent can be explained by insufficient awareness campaigns aimed at the general public. The lack of sustainable financial and human resources does not allow national blood services to raise awareness, educate and recruit a sufficient number of donors," says Dr André Loua, WHO Regional Adviser for Transfusion Safety, who is responsible for blood safety in Africa.
A deadly shortage
In Senegal, as in the rest of Africa, this shortage is deadly. "One of my classmates died because of the lack of blood when we were in college. She was suffering from leukaemia and had lost a lot of blood during her period. She needed an emergency transfusion, but her hospital no longer had compatible blood available. Had there been any, she would have survived," sighs Evelyne Inès Ntonga, a Cameroonian expatriate in Dakar.
The engineer shared this painful event with Jean-Luc Semedo when they were students at the same school in Dakar. So that no child would ever again suffer the same fate as their classmate, Evelyne Inès Ntonga then joined forces with Jean-Luc Semedo to co-found the Hope application.
In 2018, their solution was tested by medical staff at the hospital in Thiès, one of Senegal's largest cities east of the capital. For eight months, the caregivers set aside their thick paper registers on which they usually recorded blood donors. Filing cabinets that took as long to fill out as they did to consult when needed. Jean-Luc Semedo:
"In Senegal, there is a huge digital divide in hospitals. There are about 20 transfusion centres, but only the one in Dakar manages its donations digitally. All the others do it with the means at hand, with the physical registers. As a result, when there is a need, doctors can't quickly know which compatible donor to contact or where to find him."
A 60% increase in blood donations
During the pilot phase in Thies, an old man and a little boy were saved in time thanks to the application. "By accessing our digital database, we were able to immediately send alert messages to the phones of compatible donors located near the hospital. Several answered the call," says Evelyne Inès Ntonga proudly. During the clinical test, their application boosted the number of blood donations by 60%, with 3,562 bags collected in eight months compared to 2,178 over the whole of 2017.
The SMS messages of thanks and donation reminders, sent automatically to donors' phones to encourage their loyalty, played a major role. The awareness campaigns conducted in parallel by the Hope teams also play a role.
Because in Senegal as in the rest of Africa, cultural myths and prejudices about blood transfusion persist and have a strong impact on the number of blood donations.
"Some people think that blood given for free is then sold to the sick. Others have a negative view of mixing their own blood with that of another. They say it breaks sacred family lines. Africans must be made to break these beliefs by making them aware that we're all human beings, that it's the same blood that runs in our veins."
Today, the young engineer and his partner are working hard from their small offices in Dakar on a strategy to succeed one day in winning the Holy Grail: a meeting with the Ministry of Health. So far, all their attempts have been in vain. "For several years now, the ministry has been setting up a digital health centre. The solutions are there, but nothing is moving forward. Is it a question of funding or a lack of political will?" asks Semedo. According to him, his digital solution would cost half as much as any blood bank management software currently available on the market.
A planned establishment in Nigeria
While waiting for better days at home in Senegal, the co-founders of Hope turned eastward to succeed in implementing their application on the field for the long term. In Nigeria, an international NGO is expected to start using it in its health structures at the end of the year.
The Central African Republic is also in the line of sight of the two engineers. In the field of blood transfusions, they are not the only ones to innovate. In Nigeria, the Haima Health Initiative is also connecting blood donations to save lives. This is yet another local initiative — this time around, it comes with a giant.
Dr. André Loua of the WHO:
"We've been contacted by Facebook to implement the social network's blood donation feature in Africa."
A feature that will allow African blood banks to inform their specific transfusion needs and plan donations directly on the blue network. Blood donors will be able to find out in real-time about the various campaigns organised near their homes and set reminders for their next donations directly on Facebook. Unlike Hope's young founders, the Facebook teams are getting the ministerial meetings by the bucketful. The authorities of 18 countries are currently in contact with them to begin piloting this tool in Africa.