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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
Every transfusion counts
Seventeen-year-old Demarus Torrence loves comics and sci-fi movies, and he balances his work in high school while living with sickle cell disease. He endures monthly blood transfusions, and, at times, regular hospital stays to help with extreme pain and other complications. “Just imagine someone hitting your back with a hammer, constantly, and it just won’t stop,” says Demarus’ mother, Passion Terrell. “[Demarus] describes it, and you can picture it, but you really can’t.”
Demarus is the only person in his immediate family with the disease, though testing has revealed other family members carry the sickle cell trait. As a mother, Passion has made it her mission to care for her beloved son and to inspire others to give blood – especially individuals who are Black and people who have never donated. The family hosted a Red Cross blood drive at Demarus’ school this month to highlight that generous donations can mean a world of difference to people like him. “It’s amazing – once he gets that blood in him, it’s like a different person,” Passion said. “His breathing improves; his blood levels improve. It’s like his body wakes up.”
Community partners lending support
Partnerships with national and local organizations within the Black community are critical to building trust, sharing information and working together to engage new donors to help save lives. Nationally, the Red Cross is thrilled to announce new partnerships with preeminent organizations like the NAACP and 100 Black Men of America, Inc. to raise awareness about sickle cell disease as a persisting and heartbreaking health disparity, and to help patients with sickle cell disease by encouraging blood donations from individuals who are Black.
Blood drive safety
Each Red Cross blood drive and donation center follows the highest standards of safety and infection control, and additional precautions – including face masks for donors and staff, regardless of vaccination status – 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.
Health insights for donors
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 who require trait-negative blood. Blood transfusion is an essential treatment for those with sickle cell disease, and blood donations from individuals of the same race, ethnicity and blood type have a unique ability to help patients fighting 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.