Help ease patient pain during Sickle Cell Awareness Month

One in three African American blood donors is a match for people with sickle cell disease

During Sickle Cell Awareness Month in September, the American Red Cross emphasizes the importance of a diverse blood supply to help meet the needs of those with sickle cell disease—the most common inherited blood disorder in the U.S.

Sickle cell disease impacts more than 100,000 people across the country, most of whom are of African descent. Regular blood transfusions are critical to managing extreme pain and life-threatening complications faced by many.

Unfortunately, they may develop an immune response against blood from donors that is not closely matched to their own. However, because most individuals who are Black have unique structures on their red blood cells that are not often found in other donor populations, One in three African American blood donors is a match for people with sickle cell disease.

Seasonal changes can trigger pain crises for those battling sickle cell—possibly increasing the need for lifesaving blood transfusions. 

Life-threatening complications 

Sickle cell disease distorts soft, round blood cells and turns them hard and crescent-shaped, which can cause severe pain. “When cells harden, they can get caught in blood vessels, potentially leading to stroke and organ failure,” said Dr. David Mair, divisional chief medical officer for the American Red Cross. 

Bathesheba Benson knows hope and pain more than most. Known as Sheba, her first sickle cell crisis happened when at home in Minnesota. She was just five years old and had a stroke. It was then that her family learned she had inherited the sickle cell trait from both of her parents.

“Oh, my goodness, it’s so hard,” she said. “I have to plan life out ahead of time. I have to double think about my decisions that I take in life.” Sometimes a crisis can’t be prevented. Certain factors, like extreme cold, elevate risks. Even something quite ordinary, such as five-minute walk to a nail salon, can ignite the spiral. “I feel healthier once I get blood in my system—I feel brighter, stronger and healthier—you can see it in my face—my sister says ‘you look better’.”

Partnering with the community

To help ensure patients have the blood products they need, the American Red Cross is working with partners in the Black community to grow the number of blood donors who are Black through the sickle cell initiative, which launched in 2021. 

In the first year of the initiative, the number of first-time African American blood donors who gave with the Red Cross increased by 60%. In September and October, the Red Cross launches Joined by Blood, a fall component of the initiative where the Red Cross is teaming up with community organizations, like the National Pan-Hellenic Council and others, to host blood drives and inspire donors who are Black to give blood to support patients with sickle cell disease. To learn more, visit RedCrossBlood.org/OurBlood.

Testing for sickle cell trait

At a time when health information has never been more important, the Red Cross is screening all blood, platelet and plasma donations from self-identified African American donors for the sickle cell trait. 

This additional screening will provide Black donors with an additional health insight and help the Red Cross identify compatible blood types more quickly to help patients with sickle cell disease. Donors can expect to receive sickle cell trait screening results, if applicable, within one to two weeks through the Red Cross Blood Donor App and the online donor portal at RedCrossBlood.org.   

How to donate

Simply download the American Red Cross Blood Donor App, visit RedCrossBlood.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or enable the Blood Donor Skill on any Alexa Echo device to make an appointment or for more information. All blood types are needed to ensure a reliable supply for patients.

Source: American Red Cross

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