Personal religious beliefs denying Nigerians critical medical care

By Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi

Before the demise of 60-year-old Ikeogo, he instructed the doctors at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH), and also signed that despite his health challenges blood should not be transfused into his body.

He said this because of his religious belief as an adherent member of the Jehovah Witness whose teaching was against the concept of blood transfusion.

The team of doctors at the hospital reached out to his wife, Precious Ikeogo, informing her of the implications of not receiving a blood transfusion as a result of personal choice. 

Mrs Ikeogo recalls the doctor’s statement, “They said my husband’s condition is critical that if I don’t allow them to transfuse blood since he is in a coma, he might not survive it.

“I told them that we (Jehovah Witnesses) do not take blood because we are following the instruction of God in the Holy Bible in Act 15:29, and first Peter 2:11.

“I told the Doctors pressuring me that before my husband went into a coma, he told me not to allow blood transfusion and there is nothing I can do because he has signed not to allow the transfusion,” she told the reporter.

After the refusal of blood transfusion, Mr Ikeogo, a staff in one of the Onne Shipping companies in Rivers State died on May 5, 2014, at the UPTH. His wife was left to care for their five children, all now grown up.

Ikeogo told the reporter that blood transfusion can not save humans, citing her sister’s non-Witness (name referred to those who were not adherents of the Jehovah Witness denomination) who died after blood transfusion, rather human survival depends on God.

Asuzu Goddy and his daughter Desire Ibe Asuzu. Photo Credit: Mr Asuzu.

The case of Asuzu Goddy Asuzu’s daughter, a publisher (a publisher in Jehovah’s Witness is a baptized member who preaches the word of God) in the church, was different.

Despite the refusal of blood transfusion during the sickness of his daughter, she survived.

Asuzu, 58,  told the reporter that 12-years ago, his only child, Desire Ibe Asuzu, 19,  was only aged 2 when she had a severe high fever and was hospitalised at a hospital in Uratta, Owerri in Imo State. The doctor demanded she needs blood, otherwise, she might die within 48 hours.

“I refused and he (doctor) made me sign a document that relieved him of blame in the likely event of Child’s death on the basis of faith, and I signed.

“You could imagine my state of mind and because I am a Jehovah Witness I had a faith to defend and to decline is the best thing I could do under that circumstance because we know Jehovah does not accept blood in any form” and “that was a fine opportunity for me to stand on Jehovah command not to take blood,”, Asuzu told the reporter in a telephone interview.

Expressing his joy, he recalled that 3 days after signing, the doctor visited for a checkup, and was shocked about the new development of my child’s health.

Asuzu recalls the doctor’s statement, “Whatever you are giving this baby should stop.

“The blood is getting too much,” Asuzu said.

Asuzu said whether a patient accepts blood or not, there could also be complications but as a member of Jehovah  Witness, he wants to obey Jehovah’s command.

Although there are no statistics of figures for mortality caused by the refusal of blood transfusion or figures of patients that died after blood was transfused into their body.

Research revealed that 75 Jehovah Witness members are dying each year in the United States alone due to refusal of blood transfusion, whereas only about 0.01% of mortality, or life of less than one Witness, is spared by refusing blood transfusion and avoiding transfusion-related death.

More cases in Nigeria 

The Lagos State government in January 2020 rescued a 14-day-old baby girl from her parents who refused to allow her to have a blood transfusion, despite her severe jaundice.

The parent’s reason was religious belief that forbids blood transfusion and preferred to keep the baby at home.

Several people including children have lost their lives following the refusal of blood transfusion, due to their religious beliefs.

Churches like Jehovah Witness have a history of denying blood transfusion not minding the consequences and this has led to many lost their lives.

In 2018, a Police corporal died at the Abuja National Hospital from complications that arose from her seven months pregnancy, which resulted in surgery.

Report says after the surgery, she had complications and the doctor demanded that her stomach should be flushed, and a blood transfusion be provided after flushing. But her family refused, according to her husband, stating her family preferred her to die than allow the blood transfusion. 

Jehovah witness religious order is commonly known as the religion that rejects blood transfusion, however, findings revealed that there are other religions in Nigeria that have contrary views to  medicine during a low health crisis.

Faith Tabernacle Congregation, and the Church of Christ are against medical treatment. They rely solely on prayers, believing God has healed all.

Statistics of death rates in Nigeria

In 2022, the death rate for Nigeria was 11.1 per 1,000 people. The death rate in Nigeria fell gradually from 31.1 per 1,000 people in 1950 to 11.1 per 1,000 people in 2022.

Globally, there have been several reasons why people receive blood — such as surgery, injury, disease and bleeding disorders. The statistics of donors drop, making it impossible for people to receive the needed blood.

Alternative to reduce mortality rate

Mr Asuzu said globally, Jehovah Witness members have resorted to non-blood treatment and most doctors have been taught alternative ways of bloodless treatment. He said there are alternative ways to treat without using either that white or red blood.

He urged doctors to always use the alternative treatment when patients declined blood treatment.

There have been several talks in Nigeria for doctors to seek medical alternatives to help patients who decline blood transfusion.

Several concerned advocacy groups and medical experts say bloodless surgery should be conducted for patients whose faith forbids them from accepting external blood into their bodies.

Bloodless surgery in Nigeria is not common. However, doctors in states like Lagos, and Oyo have conducted bloodless surgeries.

There have also been some advancements. Doctors at the University of Calabar in 2019 trained medical doctors, laboratory scientists and nurses on how to conduct bloodless surgery

The training was part of the activities lined up for the 5th Annual Scientific Conference by the Bloodless Medicine and Surgery Society with the theme ‘From Blood Management to Bloodless Medicine – Back to the Future.’

Guest lecturer, Prof. Sherri Ozawa, who delivered a keynote lecture on ‘Professional Societies and Blood Transfusion Avoidance – The Paradigm Shift,’ said factors such as cultural, religious and others must be taken into consideration while dealing with the issue of blood transfusion.

Presently, there are only a few reports on the success of bloodless surgery in Nigeria. In 2014, The University College Hospital (UCH) in Ibadan celebrated its first Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (CABG) Open Heart Surgery. The surgery was reportedly conducted without blood transfusion.

The country’s blood agency, Nigeria’s National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS) says it collects only 500,000 pints of blood every year, leaving a shortfall of about 73.3 per cent. While only 25,000 blood units were collected, screened and distributed between 2018 and 2020.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says Nigeria needs average blood of 1.8 million annually to keep the health of residents safe and sound.

Report says 24.6 thousand doctors in Nigeria are attending to the Nigerian population of about 206 million people. The male doctors are about 16 thousand while female doctors account for 8.6 thousand.

Medical expert experience in bloodless treatment 

Dr Amaka Onyewuchi, medical director of Healing Land Hospital and Maternity at Shibiri Ojo, Lagos has treated and continues treating several Jehovah Witnesses without blood transfusion.

According to her, the bloodless treatment differs, and patients’ blood levels and clinical status are factors considered before administering alternative medication rather than transfusing blood.

Amaka said, “It is their faith, if they say over their dead body, they can not take blood, we can not chase them away because there are other plasma expanders that will help.

“I am not talking about a situation where the person is already dying and  in a coma, but a situation where the patient is already clinically stable.”

“All these plasma expanders can not work like blood, ” she stresses.

Speaking further, she said, “we have seen situations where immediately you give blood, it automatically elevates the blood per cent whereas the other method, elevate the blood per cent over time”. 

Amaka explained that during patient’s dietary management, plasma expanders are added while patients are encouraged to be given food like meat, fish, egg and others and with serious patient management and checking of blood per cent, to ensure patients are not dropping in his/her clinical status

“There are people we have treated that their blood level is 18/19, they are still very conscious and alert and actively eating, they can take drugs and eat things that can bring blood. 

“So it depends on the clinical representation of the particular person,’’ she said.

Views of other denominations 

Prophetess Christianah Amakiri, Founder of Eternal Glory Liberty Church of Christ, EGLCC, said people should be allowed to practice their faith.

Mrs Amakiri said, “Once you develop the faith of not drinking medicine and accepting blood transfusion, hold to that faith.

“That is what James in the Bible said, in anything you do, have faith,” she added.

She stated that EGLCC takes medicine and blood transfusion but the church is not against the other religious groups that believe only in faith rather than taking blood transfusion or medicine.

“Go with your beliefs and your different denominations, and Christ will go with it.

“No church on earth has worshipped God even to the finger of Jesus, but it is our belief that helps us,” Amakiri said.

As more medical personnel upskill in the process of utilizing non-blood transfusion methods, it is hoped that the mortality from the refusal of blood transfusion over personal doctrines would be greatly reduced in order to save more lives and ultimately increase healthy and sustainable living. 

 This story was produced with the support of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), in partnership with Code for Africa and Ayin Network.


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