Red Cross initiative aims to increase blood availability for patients with sickle cell disease

Blood transfusions from donors who are Black may provide best outcomes for patients

When patients living with sickle cell disease face a sickle cell crisis, blood transfusions can make a lifesaving difference. That’s why the American Red Cross has launched an initiative to grow the number of blood donors who are Black to help patients with sickle cell disease, an enduring and often invisible health disparity in the U.S.

Bridget C_Miller Harper_Photo

Over 100,000 people in the U.S. have sickle cell disease, the most common inherited blood disorder, and the majority of patients are of African descent. Despite the discovery of the disease more than a century ago, there have been fewer health resources available to help those currently suffering from sickle cell crisis in comparison to similar diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with sickle cell disease experience worse health outcomes than comparable diseases.

A closer blood match leads to better outcomes

Many patients with sickle cell disease will require regular blood transfusions to help manage their disease. Glinda Dames-Fincher, of Mayfield Heights, has lived with sickle cell disease for more than 60 years. She receives monthly red cell exchange transfusions as part of her treatment.

Unfortunately, these patients may develop an immune response against blood from donors that is not closely matched to their own. Many individuals who are Black have distinct markers on their red blood cells that make their donations ideal for helping patients with sickle cell disease. More than half of blood donors who are Black have blood that is free of C, E and K antigens – making them the best match for those with sickle cell disease.

Life-threatening complications

Sickle cell disease distorts soft, round blood cells and turns them hard and crescent-shaped, which can cause extreme pain. When hardened, the cells can get caught in blood vessels, potentially leading to stroke and organ failure.

“Transfusions provide healthy blood cells, unblocking blood vessels and delivering oxygen,” said Dr. James Westra, Red Cross regional medical director. “By increasing the amount of closely matched blood products, the Red Cross is able to help ensure the right blood product is available at the right time for patients facing a sickle cell crisis – minimizing complications for those with rare blood types fighting sickle cell disease.” makenzie-nance-002

Cleveland teenager Makenzie Nance was a preschooler when she received her first blood transfusion to help overcome complications from sickle cell disease. She visits local high schools to educate students about sickle cell disease and her family hosts blood drives to encourage more Black donors to give. You can read Makenzie’s story here.

The Red Cross asks members of the Black community to join in helping to address this health disparity and meet the needs of patients with sickle cell disease. Donors can take action today by scheduling a blood donation appointment at RedCrossBlood.org, by downloading the Blood Donor App or by calling 1-800-RED CROSS. To help tackle the need for blood in September – Sickle Cell Awareness Month − all donors who come to give with the Red Cross Sept. 13-30 will receive a limited-edition football-themed T-shirt, while supplies last. 

 

 

Student spreads the word about sickle cell disease

World Sickle Cell Awareness Day observed each June 19th

By Eilene E. Guy, American Red Cross volunteer

The American Red Cross believes Black lives matter. That’s why it’s urgent that more Black and African Americans roll up their sleeves and donate lifesaving blood for those living with sickle cell disease.

Cleveland teenager Makenzie Nance is one of an estimated 100,000 people in the U.S. who have sickle cell disease (SCD). Some 90% of those are of African descent and roughly 1,000 babies are born with the disease each year.

Sickle cell disease is a hereditary condition that can be life threatening. It leads to anemia (a shortage of red blood cells), causing fatigue and possible damage to blood vessels and vital organs. It often causes severe pain that can last for hours or days; it can even lead to disabling strokes.

Makenzie was a preschooler when she first had a critically low hemoglobin level – which meant her red blood cells couldn’t carry oxygen from her lungs throughout her body. She needed a blood transfusion immediately.

And to be the most effective, that blood needed to come from someone of her own ethnicity, an African American.

“They told me there was a shortage of African American blood,” her mother, Demeatrice Nance, recalls. “It had to be flown in from somewhere else. That’s when I realized the importance of getting African Americans to donate blood.”

Thanks to Makenzie getting regular checkups and immediate attention when she gets so much as a common cold, the 17-year-old has only had two transfusions. “But we know friends who have to have transfusions every couple of months,” Demeatrice said.

Makenzie’s condition could change at any time, requiring more transfusions. A single patient with SCD can need up to 50-100 pints of blood each year.

The Red Cross, which collects about 40% of the nation’s blood supply, wants to be sure there’s plenty of blood to meet these very specific needs. In an all-out effort to fill the gap, the Red Cross is trying to triple the number of Black and African American blood donors by the end of December 2024.

SCD also affects people with ancestors from India, Central and South America, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Mediterranean nations such as Italy, Greece, France and Turkey.

Both Makenzie and her mom are active in recruiting blood donors. “African Americans just haven’t been educated about giving blood,” Demeatrice said. “ ‘Oh, I don’t like needles,’ or ‘Oh, they’ll take all my blood.’ We have to dispel all of that misinformation.”

Makenzie goes to high schools around Cleveland to educate her peers. And because she’s spent so much time in hospitals and doctors’ offices herself, she wants to go into nursing; she’s already a Certified Nursing Assistant with a goal of becoming a Registered Nurse.

Demeatrice regularly sponsors Red Cross blood drives which include information about SCD as well as team that can do finger pricks to screen for the trait that can lead to having a child with the disease.

“I’m all in,” for spreading the word about SCD, with the goal of early detection and plenty of blood for effective treatment, she said.

To learn more about SCD, go to RedCrossBlood.org/SickleCell.