« Every second you gain in saving a life is critical. When we saw that Zipline was a solution, we didn’t hesitate, » said Dr. Diane Gashumba, Rwandan Minister of Health. Report WHO

In the deep rural areas of Rwanda, a new technology is saving lives. In the past two decades, Rwanda has created a high-quality national blood service, tripling its blood donation rates between 2000 and 2018. The use of innovative technology, like drones for delivering blood quickly to those in need, has been a key factor in the success of the service.

Blood transfusion services started in Rwanda in 1975, and since 1985 they have been exclusively from voluntary, unpaid blood donors. The 1994 genocide devastated the health infrastructure and systems, but the government prioritised the rebuilding of blood transfusion services, realizing how pivotal access to blood is in saving lives. Stringent measures were put in place to improve the safety and availability of blood countrywide – this has contributed to the drop in child mortality by two-thirds between 2000 and 2015, and maternal mortality by three-quarters.

Today the National Centre for Blood Transfusion (NCBT) provides safe and ample blood and blood products to all patients in need. This is achieved through 541 permanent mobile blood collection sites and five regional distribution centres serving 66 transfusing health facilities. Centralized supply chains and on-demand deliveries have allowed the NCBT to reduce waste and stock shortages.

One of the country’s major challenges in providing blood to those in need, especially in rural and remote areas, is the country’s terrain - including impassable mountains - and damaged roads. Rwanda uses a drone technology called ‘Zipline’ which cuts blood delivery times down from four hours to just 15 minutes in some cases.

« Every second you gain in saving a life is critical. When we saw that Zipline was a solution, we didn’t hesitate, » said Dr. Diane Gashumba, Rwandan Minister of Health.

« I used to see the drones fly and think they must be mad, until the same drone saved my life, » said Alice Mutimutuje, a Rwandan mother.

Maintaining a cold chain is another major challenge for many blood banks. In December 2016, Rwanda introduced an electronic cold chain monitoring system that tracks temperatures of blood products in real time. When the temperature gets too high or low, a warning text message and email are sent to the person monitoring the system.

Blood donation is made even more efficient using apheresis machines, which collect separate blood components like plasma, platelets or red blood cells. This technology has had great benefits, particularly for cancer patients.

But all this technology would amount to nothing without dedicated blood donors.

Rwanda’s policy since 1985 is that blood must be donated by unpaid volunteers and provided to patients in need free-of-charge. Donors around Rwanda are eager to help.

« I always am happy to save a life of someone, even someone I don’t know, because in our (Rwandan) culture, we believe that to be human is to do good things to someone without being remunerated, » said Euphrasie Uwase Maneno, a blood donor.

But access to safe blood is not the norm in every country. World Blood Donor Day is on 14 June 2019 and this year WHO is calling for ‘safe blood for all’. Rwanda provides an example that should be emulated if the world is to have enough safe blood and blood products for everyone in need. Become a blood donor today and help save lives.