The American Red Cross has launched a new national initiative to reach more blood donors who are Black to help patients with sickle cell disease and improve health outcomes. In the U.S., it is estimated that over 100,000 people have sickle cell disease and may require regular blood transfusions throughout their lifetime. Blood transfusions are essential in managing the very real pain and long-term health of those with sickle cell disease, and blood donations from individuals of the same race or similar ethnicity and blood type are the most effective way to help patients experiencing a sickle cell crisis. Since the majority of people with sickle cell are of African descent, blood donations from Black individuals are critical in helping those suffering from this disease.
“As an organization dedicated to alleviating suffering, the Red Cross is committed to the health and well-being of all communities, and a diverse blood supply is critical to improving health outcomes for all patients – especially those with sickle cell disease, said Gail McGovern, CEO and president of the Red Cross. “For someone facing a sickle cell crisis, a blood transfusion can make a lifesaving difference.”
Blood transfusions and sickle cell disease
Sickle cell disease distorts soft and round red blood cells and turns them hard and crescent shaped, which can cause individuals to experience extreme pain and face life-threatening complications. Over the past year and a half, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the challenges for patients with sickle cell disease as they face new concerns around availability of care and access to needed blood products for their treatment. As COVID-19 cases have increased and hospital resources become more strained, it has become even more difficult for patients with sickle cell disease to seek the treatments they need. One treatment a patient should not have to worry about is the availability of a closely matched blood product to help save their life.
Individuals with sickle cell disease can require frequent blood transfusions throughout their lifetime – needing as many as 100 units of blood each year – to treat complications of the disease. Unfortunately, frequent transfusions can make finding compatible blood types even more difficult if patients develop an immune response against blood from donors that is not closely matched to the blood of the recipient.
“A closely matched blood product is critical for patients with sickle cell disease. Many individuals of African descent have distinct markers/structures on their red blood cells that make their donations the most compatible blood to help patients with sickle cell disease,” explained Dr. Yvette Miller, executive medical director at the Red Cross. “While most patients can receive blood from a donor of any race or ethnic group, due to the presence of some unique red blood cells antigens shared by people of African descent, donations from individuals who are Black are more likely to provide better health outcomes for those fighting sickle cell disease.”
Sickle cell disease is an enduring – and often invisible – health disparity in the U.S. Despite the discovery of this disease more than a century ago, people with sickle cell disease have less access to health resources and experience worse health outcomes compared to other similar diseases.
Community partner support
The Red Cross has established new and expanded existing partnerships with preeminent organizations like the NAACP, 100 Black Men of America, Inc. and The Links, Incorporated, to expand blood donation opportunities in Black communities and to grow the number of blood donors who are Black to help patients in need, especially those batting sickle cell disease.
In local neighborhoods across the country, the Red Cross is also working with Black community organizations to host blood drives in convenient locations that help bring donation opportunities closer to home.
“No single organization can meet the needs of a community alone. That’s why we are so grateful for the support of our partners as we work to build new relationships and engage new blood donors in our mission to help save lives,” said McGovern.
The need for blood is not limited to patients with sickle cell disease. Every two seconds someone in the U.S. needs a blood transfusion, including individuals experiencing childbirth complications, people fighting cancer and accident victims being raced to emergency rooms. Fifty-one percent of individuals who are Black have type O (positive or negative) blood, in comparison to approximately 45% of white individuals. Type O blood is most often needed by hospitals to help patients, and therefore, donors who are Black play a critical role in meeting the constant need for blood.
The Red Cross asks members of the Black community to join with us and our partners to help meet the needs of patients with sickle cell disease and other medical conditions to improve health outcomes. Please take action today and schedule a blood donation appointment by visiting RedCrossBlood.org, downloading the Blood Donor App or calling 1-800-RED CROSS.
Blood products have a limited shelf-life and volunteer donors are the only source of blood and platelets for patients in need of lifesaving transfusions.
Sickle cell trait testing available
The Red Cross currently provides sickle cell trait screening on all donations from self-identified African American donors. This additional screening helps the Red Cross identify compatible blood types more quickly to help patients with sickle cell and provides African American donors who give with the Red Cross an additional health insight during a time when health information has never been more important.
Sickle cell trait is inherited and means that an individual with the trait received a sickle cell gene from one parent but does not have sickle cell disease. Many individuals are unaware if they carry this trait as sickle cell trait testing at birth was not widely provided until 2006. Health experts recommend that individuals with sickle cell trait be aware of their status and consult their medical provider on what it means for them. It is estimated that about 1 in 13 Black or African American babies in the U.S. is born with sickle cell trait, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Donors can expect to receive results of their blood screenings within one to two weeks through our Red Cross Blood Donor App and the online donor portal at RedCrossBlood.org.
Blood donation safety and general information
The Red Cross adheres to the highest standards of safety and infection control. As the pandemic continues, all donors and staff are required to wear masks at blood drives and blood donation centers. Individuals who have received one of the authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. are still able to donate blood. Blood donation is a simple process, and individuals do not need to know their blood type to make a donation appointment.
A blood donor card or driver’s license or two other forms of identification are required at check-in. Individuals who are 17 years of age in most states (16 with parental consent, where allowed by state law), weigh at least 110 pounds and are in generally good health may be eligible to donate blood. High school students and other donors 18 years of age and younger also have to meet certain height and weight requirements.
Blood and platelet donors can save time at their next donation by using RapidPass® to complete their pre-donation reading and health history questionnaire online, on the day of their donation, before arriving at the blood drive. To get started, follow the instructions at RedCrossBlood.org/RapidPass or use the Blood Donor App.