Red Cross aims to increase African American blood donations to combat sickle cell disease and meet critical need

By Eilene E. Guy, American Red Cross Volunteer

Recently, I was talking with visitors at a family health fair, explaining the always- urgent need for blood donations. I was especially targeting African-Americans, asking what they know about sickle cell disease.

Interestingly, their responses ranged from a blank look to, “Yes, I lost a cousin to sickle cell.”

Keith Lofton of Olmsted Falls at a recent blood drive in Rocky River

Apparently this is not unusual, which is why the American Red Cross is leading a national drive to raise awareness and recruit more blood donors who are Black. This is because their blood is uniquely suited to help patients with sickle cell disease live full and comfortable lives.

“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.”

Sickle cell disease (SCD) 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.

In the U.S., it’s estimated that more than 100,000 people have SCD and roughly 1,000 babies are born with the disease every year. SCD knows no national boundaries, which is why June 19 is designated World Sickle Cell Day.

Blood transfusions 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.

Sabrina Spikes works full time for the Red Cross to rally African-American civic and faith-based organizations to recruit and educate.

“It’s vital that we get the word out as much as possible, to get more blood donors who are Black,” she said. “Here in northern Ohio, we’ve seen an increase (in donor numbers), but we still have work to do. Especially in the summer, when blood donations tend to fall off.”

In addition to recruitment, Sabrina’s other priority is education: preparing potential donors for a successful experience at a blood drive.

“Preparation is key,” she said. “Drinking plenty of water and eating iron-rich foods is important. And cutting out caffeinated beverages — coffee, tea, sodas — that slow the absorption of iron helps cut the deferral rate of donors, especially African-American women.”

Sabrina herself carries the trait for sickle cell, although she does not have the disease. It was important for her to know that: If the father of her three children had also had the trait, the children would suffer from the life-long condition. Sadly, too many babies are born with SCD.

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 women or girls experiencing childbirth complications, people fighting cancer, surgery patients and accident victims.

Bridget C. Miller Harper of Cleveland at the Browns Blood Drive in July, 2021

Fifty-one percent of people 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, so donors who are Black play a critical role in meeting the constant need for blood.

Blood products have a limited shelf l-life and volunteer donors are the only source of blood and platelets for patients in need of lifesaving transfusions.

“My call to action is, schedule a blood donation appointment by visiting  RedCrossBlood.org, downloading the  Blood Donor App  or calling 1-800-RED CROSS,” Sabrina said.

Edited by Glenda Bogar, American Red Cross volunteer
Posted by Ryan Lang, American Red Cross volunteer and board member