Burma's Blood Money

Patients say Burmese hospitals routinely charge them for donated blood.
2009-08-12
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View of Burma’s former capital, Rangoon, Dec. 11, 2008.
View of Burma’s former capital, Rangoon, Dec. 11, 2008.
AFP

BANGKOK—Residents of Mandalay say that patients needing transfusions at a main public hospital in the Burmese cultural capital are routinely asked for money for donated blood.

"You have to pay money at the hospital," a member of the Aung Pin-leh district blood donors' association said.

"If you don't, they don't give you blood at all. This is how they operate."

He said that a patient named U Thaung Tun, who suffers from a circulatory disorder, had recently asked the voluntary group for blood because he had traveled all the way from the remote state of Kachin to seek treatment and needed a transfusion.

"The blood donation association from the neighborhood gave as much blood as they had," the donor said.

"The social organization donated three bottles. For the rest, they would have to find a lot of money to receive blood at the hospital," he added.

"They would have to find about 40,000-50,000 kyat (U.S. $50)."

Mandalay residents said that people who can afford to pay are often asked for U.S. $10 for a bottle of blood, while poorer patients might be expected to pay half that amount.

Routine practice

One man with close ties to Mandalay General Hospital, the facility at the center of the allegations, said that the selling of blood is tied to corruption among hospital staff.

"Normally, if a patient needs blood while in the hospital, the patient has to look for a donor himself," the man said.

"But if the patient is from out of town and does not have any contacts in the city, and he needs a blood transfusion, then it is quite difficult for him," he added.

"It is not easy for that sort of patient to get blood from the blood bank immediately."

He said that while the sale of donated blood isn't endorsed by official policy, payment would still ensure a swift procurement of blood for those needing a transfusion.

While there doesn’t appear to be a wide-scale black market in blood sales in Burma, patients are routinely asked for money to speed up the process of transfusion.

"Depending on the how much the patient can afford to pay, the price of payment for the blood increases and decreases," the resident familiar with the Mandalay General Hospital said.

"If one can give money, one can get the blood quickly and efficiently...There have been cases where they will get the blood type needed in exchange for payment."

Charge denied

Sources close to the hospital's administration say, however, that payment is required only for the basic cost of blood transfusions, and not for the blood itself.

An employee who answered the phone at the Mandalay General Hospital denied the allegations.

"We don't take money for that at all," he said. "Don't go around [saying] these things."

"If you want to ask, ask our department head. Ask [the Ministry of Health in] Naypyidaw, OK?"

But the employee declined to provide a telephone number for high-ranking health officials, and then hung up.

Meanwhile, ordinary citizens who donate blood said that asking payment for transfusions is inappropriate, especially for poorer patients.

"They shouldn't do that," the Aung Pin-leh blood donor said.

"The donor donated out of charity, and they are then selling it. Actually, they shouldn't ask for money from those who cannot afford it."

Donor groups

A youth member of the emergency blood donor group Uni Fellas, based in Burma's former capital Rangoon, said that while that city's hospitals experience similar instances of corruption tied to blood transfusions, the problem has been worse in the past.

"A number of citizen-run organizations have sprung up in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, with donor groups obtaining blood for blood banks," the youth member said.

"Instead of [donating] once every four months, youths are gathering together to build up a supply for the blood bank instead of just for emergencies,” he said.

“It’s easy to obtain blood as long as you have a slip of paper from the hospital saying you need it. You can simply go to the bank and get it."

The youth member said corruption in Rangoon, a city of nearly 4 million residents, is not as prevalent as in Mandalay, which is one-fourth Rangoon's size.

“Most of the related costs go to testing and other equipment. If the blood is a rare type then you would need to pay more for it," the youth member said.

He added that is impossible to guarantee that blood will be clean, even with citizen groups monitoring the donation process.

"We can’t always guarantee that blood will be clean. Donors are made to answer a questionnaire before they give blood, but they have to be truthful about whether they have any diseases. And sometimes they don’t know," the youth member said.

"In the case of donors selling blood directly to recipients, sometimes they could be lying to make money."

He added that while donor groups are compensated for their work, there is no fixed amount and payments often "aren't much."

Original reporting in Burmese by Ko Ye Htet, Kyaw Kyaw Aung, and Kyaw Min Htun. Translated by Soe Thinn. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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