Rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) are routinely used in African blood centres. We analysed data from two cross-sectional studies representing 95 blood centres in 29 African countries. Standardized panels of sera containing varying concentrations of anti-human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) antibodies (Ab), hepatitis B virus antigen (HBsAg) and antihepatitis C virus (HCV) Ab were screened using routine operational testing procedures at the centres. Sensitivity of detection using RDTs was high for HIV Ab-positive samples, but low for intermediately HBsAg (51·5%) and HCV Ab (40·6%)-positive samples. These findings suggest that current RDT use in Africa could pose a hazard to blood safety.