More Black blood donors urgently needed to help sickle cell patients and help save lives this fall
During Sickle Cell Awareness Month, donors can help patients fight back
The American Red Cross is emphasizing the unique role Black blood donors play in the medical treatment of those living with sickle cell disease during Sickle Cell Awareness Month this September. Right now, more Black blood donors are critically needed to help patients battling sickle cell disease as blood drives – especially those at schools, colleges and universities – continue to be canceled at alarming rates.
Last spring, more Black blood donors gave at Red Cross blood drives held at educational institutions than at any other blood drive location type. As drives across the country canceled this spring due to coronavirus concerns, the number of Black blood donors giving at these schools decreased from over 15,000 in 2019 to about 2,700 this year. Drives at educational institutions make up the largest percentage of fall blood drive cancellations, so the need for more Black blood donors for sickle cell patients is expected to remain urgent.
“Sickle cell disease profoundly impacts the quality of life of those living with this inherited blood disorder, and your blood donation could be the donation that helps a patient keep fighting,” said Dr. Yvette Miller, executive medical director, Red Cross Blood Services. “The pandemic hasn’t stopped the need for transfusions for sickle cell patients. The Red Cross encourages eligible donors to roll up a sleeve and share their strength with patients during Sickle Cell Awareness Month.”
More Black blood donors are urged to make a blood donation appointment by downloading the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or enabling the Blood Donor Skill on any Alexa Echo device.
How donations from Black blood donors help sickle cell patients
About 100,000 people in the U.S., most of whom are of African or Latino descent, are living with sickle cell disease, making it the most common genetic blood disease in the country. Sickle cell disease causes red blood cells to be sticky, hard and crescent-shaped instead of soft and round. This makes it difficult for blood to flow smoothly and carry oxygen to the rest of the body, which may lead to severe pain, tissue and organ damage, acute anemia and even strokes.
Blood transfusion helps sickle cell disease patients by increasing the number of normal red blood cells in the body, helping to deliver oxygen and unblock blood vessels. Patients with sickle cell disease depend on blood that must be matched very closely – beyond the A, B, O and AB blood types – to reduce the risk of complications. Some of these rare blood types are unique to specific racial and ethnic groups, and because of this, sickle cell disease patients are more likely to find a compatible blood match from a blood donor who is Black.
More information about blood and diversity is available on the Red Cross website.
Who blood donations help
On March 28, Alexis Jarrett experienced a pain crisis brought on by sickle cell disease. She had extreme fatigue with severe pain on the right side of her body. Her doctor wanted to avoid hospitalization because of the increased risk COVID-19 poses to sickle cell patients, so she tried to get the pain under control at home and through outpatient care.
But, on March 31, as the pain continued to intensify, Jarrett was forced to visit the emergency department and was admitted to the hospital. Her hemoglobin had dropped to critically low levels. She needed a blood transfusion, but having received over 30 transfusions in her lifetime due to sickle cell disease, she has built up antibodies that make it challenging to find a suitable blood match. She had to wait two more days to receive her transfusion due to a shortage of the unique blood she needs.
“I couldn’t have anyone at the hospital with me because of the coronavirus risk, so I was alone. And, the whole time, I was suffering,” Jarrett said, “but the blood was an almost immediate help. I could feel it immediately.” Her hemoglobin recovered, and she was discharged the next day, after spending three days in the hospital. Now, nearly a month later, she is still recovering. Her hemoglobin remains lower than it should be, but despite the resulting fatigue, she is doing better.
Jarrett believes that the COVID-19 crisis has brought an important silver lining – people coming together to help others – and blood donors may have a profound impact. “I think sometimes, when issues like COVID-19 happen, they seem so big that we don’t understand how our little bit can help,” she said. “But for me, your little bit means a lot. You are helping make a difference and helping my life continue on.”
To those who may be hesitant to give blood, Jarrett added, “Getting in the car to ride down to the Red Cross is different from riding to the store,” she said. “Getting out of the house and knowing you helped save a life – to say ‘I did this to make sure someone else could live’ – that’s one of the best parts of society. At the end of the day, that’s what matters.”
Important COVID-19 information for donors
The Red Cross is testing blood, platelet and plasma donations for COVID-19 antibodies. The test may indicate if the donor’s immune system has produced antibodies to this coronavirus, regardless of whether they developed symptoms. Red Cross antibody tests will be helpful to identify individuals who have COVID-19 antibodies and may qualify to be convalescent plasma donors. Convalescent plasma is a type of blood donation collected from COVID-19 survivors that have antibodies that may help patients who are actively fighting the virus. Donors can expect to receive the results of their antibody test within 7 to 10 days through the Red Cross Blood Donor App or the donor portal at RedCrossBlood.org.
The Red Cross is not testing donors to diagnose illness, referred to as a diagnostic test. To protect the health and safety of Red Cross staff and donors, it is important that individuals who do not feel well or believe they may be ill with COVID-19 postpone donation.
Each Red Cross blood drive and donation center follows the highest standards of safety and infection control, and additional precautions – including temperature checks, social distancing and face coverings for donors and staff – have been implemented to help protect the health of all those in attendance. Donors are asked to schedule an appointment prior to arriving at the drive and are required to wear a face-covering or mask while at the drive, in alignment with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public guidance.