African American blood urgently needed to help sickle cell patients

Red Cross national initiative driven by low downer turnout

The Twin Cities Metro has an emergency blood and platelet shortage. Donor turnout has reached the lowest levels in years as many delayed giving amid a return to the workplace and in-person learning for many families, as well as the recent surge in COVID-19 cases across the country due to the delta and omicron variants. 

While it is clear that the pandemic continues to weigh heavily on people’s lives, the Red Cross asks the public to remember that donating blood is essential to help save the lives of patients who depend on the availability of blood.

Sickle cell is the most common genetic blood disease in the U.S., and blood transfusion is a key treatment. Most patients with the disease are of African descent and rely on blood given by people of the same race or similar ethnicity. The American Red Cross has launched a national initiative to grow the number of blood donors who are Black to help patients with sickle cell disease and improve health outcomes.

Inasmuch as the overall blood shortage has affected all communities, it has disproportionately impacted the Black community. Red Cross blood donors who are Black may have a unique ability to help these patients.

In the U.S., it is estimated that over 100,000 people—the majority of whom are of African descent—have sickle cell disease and may require blood transfusions throughout their lifetimes to help manage their disease. Blood donations from individuals of the same race or similar ethnicity and blood type have a unique ability to help patients experiencing a sickle cell crisis.

Sickle cell disease is an enduring—and often invisible—health disparity in the U.S. Despite the discovery of the disease more than a century ago, fewer health resources have been available to help those currently suffering from sickle cell disease in comparison to similar diseases. 

That’s why the Red Cross sickle cell initiative seeks to raise awareness about this health disparity and increase much-needed blood donations from individuals who are Black through community partnerships. This will help ensure closely matched blood products are available for patients with sickle cell disease.

Blood transfusion is essential in managing the very real pain and long-term health of those with sickle cell disease. To meet these needs, the Red Cross is working to increase the number of Black individuals giving blood to help patients with sickle cell. 

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. Individuals with sickle cell disease can require frequent blood transfusions throughout their lifetime to treat complications of the disease. 

Unfortunately, frequent transfusions can make finding compatible blood types more difficult when patients develop an immune response against blood from donors that is not closely matched to the blood of the recipient. Many individuals who are Black have distinct protein structures on their red blood cells that make their donations the most compatible blood to help patients with sickle cell disease.

You may be familiar with A, B, AB & O blood types. But sometimes patients need an even closer match than those main blood types. By knowing a donor’s race and ethnicity, the Red Cross can better and more efficiently find compatible units for patients. Donors who are Black play a critical role in helping the American Red Cross meet the constant need for blood—especially for those with sickle cell disease who often rely on closely matched blood products for regular transfusions.

Severe pain, stroke, and organ damage are sickle cell disease complications. Transfusions provide healthy red blood cells to deliver oxygen through the body and unblock blood vessels. Some patients with sickle cell need monthly transfusions, often facing the fear compatible blood won’t be readily available to help ease their pain. Red Cross blood donors who are Black are most likely to provide that closely matched blood donation.

I want to reassure everyone that giving a blood transfusion is safe and reliable. As a regular donor myself, I find it is one way of helping our community. For full disclosure, I am the current chair of the Twin Cities Chapter of the American Red Cross. 

The health and safety of everyone attending Red Cross blood drives across the country is a priority, especially as COVID-19 cases are surging again. As such, the Red Cross resumed requiring all blood donors, staff, and others at our blood drives and donation centers to wear face masks regardless of their vaccination. Besides these additional precautions, we continue to follow all regular cleanliness and aseptic protocols.

David Hamlar MD, DDS is an assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Minnesota. He specializes in craniofacial skull base surgery. He attended Howard University College of Dentistry (DDS) and Ohio State University (MD), and came to Minnesota for his fellowship in facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. Besides medicine, he is a retired Minnesota National Guardsman achieving the rank of major general. His passion today is empowering students of color to achieve their dreams of entering the medical professions as well as other STEM-oriented careers.