x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Baghdad's blood traders stay in circulation

They are called "vampires" but the young men who give blood-for-cash outside Baghdad city emergency rooms consider themselves lifesavers.

Arriving at a hospital in the city of Hilla is one of the 350 Iraqis wounded in attacks on May 10.
Arriving at a hospital in the city of Hilla is one of the 350 Iraqis wounded in attacks on May 10.

BAGHDAD // As violence in Iraq continues at high levels and rundown health services struggle to meet demand, Baghdad's blood sellers remain in business despite efforts to shut them down. They are called "vampires" by hospital staff and police officers, but the young men who give blood-for-cash outside city emergency rooms consider themselves to be lifesavers, performing a vital service for those needing transfusions while, at the same time, earning the money that keeps their own families alive.

"I know people say bad things about us, that we are exploiting the wounded, that we are diseased and sick-minded, and that what we are doing is shameful," said Qassim Moheeb a blood trader in his early 20s. "In my opinion, the shame is on Iraq. It is a rich country but we are so poor that I have to sell my blood for money. If the government was selling the oil, I wouldn't have to sell my blood." The practice of selling blood, rather than donating it, grew during the years of sectarian civil war from 2005. Casualty rates were so high that hospitals would routinely run out of blood supplies, especially in the aftermath of bombings.

Desperate family members would rush outside operating rooms looking for anyone of a similar blood type willing to donate to their injured loved one. It quickly developed into a more-or-less open trade, with the poor selling blood and doctors keeping their contact numbers in case of emergency. Although violence in Iraq is down since the worst days of 2007, hundreds of people continue to die each month in attacks, with hundreds more wounded needing treatment. Hospitals are still often overwhelmed by huge bombings, when scores of patients arrive at once, swamping facilities and depleting meagre blood bank reserves.

"I sell a litre of blood for about US$50 [Dh184], although if the family of the injured person is poor, I sell it for less, or even give it for free," said Najam Ayyeb, a 30-year-old blood seller who is otherwise unemployed. He happened to be passing Baghdad's al Kindi hospital after a bombing during the sectarian war and was begged to donate by a family. They were so grateful they offered him money, which he refused.

However the incident gave him the idea that perhaps he could sell his blood to help make ends meet. Mr Ayyed now typically sells three litres of blood a month, earning up to $200, a useful supplement to the money he earns working other odd jobs as and when he can find them. "I used to have to beg for money on the streets, now I don't," he said. "So, I'm proud of that, I'm clothing myself, I'm feeding myself. This is not humiliating or demeaning and I'm helping other people at the same time."

The Iraqi health authorities have tried to stop the practice, fearing it spreads diseases and that sellers are damaging their own health by giving too much blood. In the West, blood donations are typically allowed once every eight weeks, and all blood is screened. Iraq now has rules that require donated blood to be tested, something that did not always happen during urgent cases. In reality though, and despite Iraqi doctor's own unease about the on-street selling, it continues.

"There is no law against selling blood but those doing so may be alcoholics, drug users or have Aids," said Dr Majid Afridi, a blood specialist in Baghdad. "I feel sorry that most of the sellers are jobless young men and that they give blood five times a month. "[But] the truth is that it is very helpful sometimes to have these people, sometimes we need blood very badly and this is the only way to get it quickly enough, especially after bombings."

Khaleel Ali, a nurse in a Baghdad blood bank, said staff kept the phone numbers of sellers - he referred to them as "vampires" - for use in emergencies. "We have the vampires' contact details and know their blood type," he explained. "If we run out of a specific blood and need more, we call them, sometimes we take a lot of blood from them, maybe three or four times a month, sometimes we need their help very badly.

"There are also times when we'll put a vampire in touch with a family that needs their blood, so they can sell it to them." Police officials say they are under orders to prevent known carriers of diseases from selling blood but that, otherwise, it is not against the law. "We try to stop the vampires selling blood because in my opinion they are all drug addicts or alcoholics," said Ammar al Sadi, the officer in charge of the drug and alcohol enforcement unit in Baghdad's Karrada district. "They use the money they get to buy more drugs and drink."

He said there were no figures for how many blood sellers operated in his area, but that he believed it to be "significant". "The problem is that the law is not strong enough for us to punish them," he said. "We can detain them for a few days but then have to let them go. If we could hold them for longer, we might be able to get them [rehabilitation] help. Most of these vampires are really unhealthy and need help."

Mr al Sadi said high unemployment was the underlying problem. "If there were jobs, no one would sell their blood, that's what we need to fix." @Email:nlatif@thenational.ae