American Red Cross encouraging African-Americans to donate blood

on January 30, 2015

In honor of Black History Month, the American Red Cross is commemorating the development of modern-day blood banking, pioneered by an African-American surgeon—Dr. Charles Drew. They have organized more than a dozen blood donation opportunities throughout February in the East Bay.

“We need people of all ethnicities to donate,” said Sara O’Brien, the external communications manager of the American Red Cross for the Northern California region. The Northern California branch will be part a nationwide effort to encourage a diverse pool of individuals to donate blood and help those in need.

Individuals living with sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder, need transfusions often and throughout their lives. According to the American Red Cross, more than 70,000 people suffer from the disease but an estimated 90 percent of them are of African descent.

Since the majority of sickle cell disease patients are African-American, the American Red Cross is making an effort to encourage the African-American community to become blood donors. “In the Bay Area, we have a diverse population, but the average blood donor tends to be a white Caucasian male,” said O’Brien.

And this is a problem.

Blood is organized into four groups—O, A, B, or AB—and classified by its Rh factor, either Rh negative or Rh positive. The Rh factor refers to a type of protein found in red blood cells and it influences the compatibility of blood transfusions. A person with type O blood who is also Rh positive would have blood that is called “O positive.” The American Red Cross estimates that about 80 percent of the American population carry the protein and thus have a positive Rh factor. Blood types are inherited, which means that your biological parent’s blood group determines your own blood type.

According the American Red Cross, almost half of African-Americans are blood type O. Since type O is the majority, African-Americans with sickle cell are likely to need blood from type O donors. “Due to genetics, it’s a better match,” said O’Brien.

Individuals with type O negative blood are the universal donor and can help any recipient in an emergency situation.

The American Red Cross’ need for blood donors is constant, but on average nationwide, only 38 percent of their donation pool is truly eligible to donate blood. Blood donors must be at least 17 years old, meet specific height and weight requirements, and be in good health. These blood donor requirements were established to entirely protect recipients—like sickle cell patients.

“Somebody like a sickle cell patient needs [blood] transfusions so often and throughout their lives that transfusion becomes more complicated each time. If you can find people to match the [recipient]… people are able to live a longer life,” said O’Brien.

Currently, sickle cell disease has no cure. This influences the constant need for a diverse blood supply, especially for African-American donors, since they are likely to provide a better match for sickle cell patients who are African-American as well.

At the American Red Cross, if a donor’s blood is a match for one or more sickle cell patients, the unit of blood is tied with a blue tag, signifying to the processing lab that that unit is part of the Blue Tie Tag program. Blood units that are part of this program will be saved for 21 days for any potential sickle cell use instead of immediate hospital use. If a person with sickle cell does not need them, they are later released to hospitals for any patient to use before the unit hits its 42-day expiration date.

But although 38 percent of people are eligible to donate blood, only eight percent actually do. According to O’Brien, there are many fears regarding blood donation, including the fear of needles and people believing that the Red Cross inserts a government microchip when you donate blood.

No matter how small the number of past donors, the American Red Cross will be commemorating Drew’s development of modern day blood banking throughout February, and urging people to donate. “We hope the Red Cross can get just a tiny bit of their attention. Maybe somebody who sees that there’s an important tie to their genetics, to their blood, to some young person in their community—maybe they’ll come to give blood,” said O’Brien.

To learn more about blood donating opportunities in the East Bay, visit the American Red Cross website. The first blood donation opportunity will take place this Monday, February 2 at the Church of Christ, 1020 East Tregallas Rd. in Antioch from 12:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. Another local opportunity will take place on February 10 at El Cerrito City Hall, 7007 Moeser Ln. from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.

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