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Recently honoured by the Queen for inspiring Black, Asian and ethnic minorities to donate blood, Dapo Odumeru MBE, co-founder of the Blood for Life Foundation, talks about his mission to raise awareness within minority communities.

Recently honoured by the Queen for inspiring Black, Asian and ethnic minorities to donate blood, Dapo Odumeru MBE is the co-founder of the innovative Blood for Life Foundation.

ReConnect Africa spoke to Dapo about his mission to raise awareness of the need for more blood and organ donors from minority communities.

ReConnect Africa (RCA): Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Dapo Odumeru: I left Nigeria in my teens to study in Ireland where I obtained a PhD in Pharmacology from University College Dublin, Ireland in 1995. My working experience has been in the pharmaceutical industry and blood transfusion. I am married to my darling wife Tomi Odumeru and I have three wonderful boys aged 12, 10 and 4. I am currently employed by NHS Blood and Transplant as a Regional QA Manager and the founder of Blood for Life a non-governmental organisation. I am a Christian and attend the Redeemed Christian Church of God where I act as a Deacon. In my spare time I love anything to do with sports and the arts and am in the process of completing a drama course at the Redeemed Drama Academy.

I have published my research work in international scientific journals and also worked on various projects in partnership with government agencies, institutions and non-government organisations in Europe, Africa and Caribbean.

RCA: What influenced your decision to actively promote blood and organ donation by minorities?

Dapo Odumeru: There are a number of events which influenced my decision to promote blood and organ donation within our community. I have known families in Nigeria who have lost their loved ones due to the lack of blood in the hospitals. Being employed by NHS Blood and Transplant (whose remit includes the provision of a reliable, efficient supply of blood to the NHS in England), I have witnessed first hand the challenges faced in recruiting blood and organ donors from the Black Asian and Minority Ethnics (BAME) and the impact it has on the community. These events have resulted in wanting to make a change.

“I have known families in Nigeria who have lost their loved ones due to the lack of blood in the hospitals.”

RCA: How big is the problem that you highlight?

Dapo Odumeru: As a community we are under-represented in the donor pool. In England there are 870k active blood donors (people who have donated within the last year) however the statistics shows that that just under 5% of donors who donated in England are from the BAME community despite the fact that the communities represent around 14% of the population.

Table 1 - % and number of active blood donors from African and Caribbean and Mixed Parentage background)

The same challenge is seen in whole organ and stem cell (bone marrow) donation where people from the BAME and mixed parentage backgrounds are likely to wait on average twice as long for some transplants as their white counterparts because of the difficulties they face in trying to find an appropriately matched donor. This is because an organ is allocated according to many factors, such as blood and tissue type and matching is likely to be closer when the ethnicity of the donor and recipient are the same. Unfortunately there are very few BAME donors on the Organ donor registry. Therefore it is important to get more people from our communities to donate blood and register as organ donors.

RCA: What have you found to be the challenges of persuading people to sign up for blood and/or organ donation?

Dapo Odumeru: There are some perceived barriers to blood and organ donation within our community. The key challenges are cultural and religious barriers. NHSBT have worked with most of the major religions in the UK and they all support the idea of blood, organ and bone marrow donation. Other challenge includes lack of awareness about donation. People not knowing that their blood might be rare, needed or not realising there are session venues near to them to donate. Unfortunately there is still a number of myths within our community and you hear statements such as “I could die as a result of donation”; “You experiment on my blood”; “I ALWAYS faint”! Blood for Life and its partners are working hard to break down these barriers.

“Just under 5% of donors who donated in England are from the BAME community despite the fact that the communities represent around 14% of the population.”

RCA: How does the lack of donors impact our minority communities?

Dapo Odumeru: It is a fact that some rare blood antigens (B+, U neg, Ro) are more common within the black community. Furthermore a number of serious blood disorders, such as sickle cell anaemia and thalassemia are more common among the black and Asian population. Sickle patients ideally need blood from a similar ethnic background. There are about 13,000-15,000 people in the UK have sickle cell disease, with 250,000 people with the trait (those with the trait CAN donate). With under 6,000 active black donors, we do not have enough blood from the black community for black patients therefore we are relying on donors from other communities to help black patients. We need more black donors to step forward.

As already mentioned, a successful organ transplant will need blood and tissue types to match and organs from people from the same ethnic background are more likely to be a close match. However because there are lack of enough BAME donors there is a disadvantage faced by BAME community in need of potentially life-changing transplant.

Equally, your chances of finding a bone marrow match are far less if you are from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic or mixed parentage background. White patients have up to a 90% chance of finding a match, BAME patients are 40% or less. BAME or mixed race donors under 40 can join the British Bone Marrow Registry by giving an extra sample of blood when they donate blood.

RCA: How has your African heritage influenced your mission?

Dapo Odumeru: My African cultural heritage, values and beliefs have played a significant role in influencing my mission in raising awareness of blood and organ donation within our community and supporting blood transfusion in Africa and the Caribbean. The cultural values that I gained as young boy growing up in Nigeria drove me to want to make a change in people’s lives; values such as having faith and experiencing extended family support network, care, teamwork and respect all play a role in blood for life’s mission.

Blood for Life believes that the African heritage and traditions are essential to empowering people and provides an opportunity to create vibrant communities that promote a sense of worth, respect, understand and responsibility in its residents.

Recently Blood for Life (with the support of NHSBT) donated a number of blood mobile units to Africa and the Caribbean. One such donation was to the National Blood Transfusion Service Jamaica through a number of diaspora groups including RAFFA and Angel Foundation and with the support the former High Commissioner of Jamaica to the UK. This blood mobile was used to launch the ‘One Love, One Blood, Saves Lives’ campaign in Jamaica. The vehicle gift has been the catalyst for an innovative partnership between NHSBT, Blood for Life and RAFFA which aims to recruit 2,800 active Black Caribbean blood donors by 2020 using the same “One Love, One Blood, Saves Lives” banner.

RCA: What do you hope the Blood for Life Foundation will achieve?

Dapo Odumeru: My hope for Blood for Life is that our mission of raising awareness for more BAME blood and organ donors will become a thing of the past because we are well represented in the donor pool as a community. I do believe that this will become a reality as we continue to build relationship with various partners with similar goals and the community at large.

RCA: What was your reaction to the announcement of your MBE from the Queen?

Dapo Odumeru: My family had gone away for the weekend so it was the first letter we came home to. The letter was opened by my wife and she just screamed and went on her knees thanking God. I had to take the letter from her to make sense of what she was grateful for. I was absolutely surprised and humbled as I was not expecting such an award. I did join my wife on my knees…thanking God. I have had time to reflect on the award and I am grateful to so many people including family, friends, charity partners and colleagues at NHSBT for their support over the years.

RCA: What advice would you offer to someone who wants to follow the path you have taken?

Dapo Odumeru: You need to find out what you are passionate about. What changes do you want to make to society so that the lives of others would be improved? Obama once said ‘Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek’.

Once you discovered the change you want to see then your passion will drive you to your goal especially on those wilderness days where things do not seem to be going right. I would also advise looking for like minded organisations to collaborate with. One of the things I have learnt is that no man is an island. Take advantage of social media and celebrate your success. Finally, have faith that you will succeed. Good luck.

RCA: How can readers find out more about donating blood and signing up for organ donation?

Dapo Odumeru:We’re incredibly grateful to those already donating, but it’s vital we encourage more BAME donors to give blood and help save lives. To know more about blood; www.blood.co.uk or NHSBT s donor line - 0300 123 23 23 (available 24 hours a day, seven days a week with all calls charged at the standard local rate, even from mobile phones).

To know more about joining the organ Register; www.organdonation.nhs.uk

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