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COVID-19 has impacted many African Americans with severe illness and death.
But the virus’ punch doesn’t end there, even if they escape actual infection with the virus.
Patients with sickle cell anemia often rely on blood transfusions to manage their disease, sometimes up to 10 units a month, according to the American Red Cross website.
But many sickle cell patients have rare blood types and rely on Black donors to donate.
But donations from Black individuals have dropped since the pandemic began, either because people are too sick to donate, or community blood donation events have been canceled, said Laura McGuire, external communications manager for the American Red Cross.
“We’re finding that a lot of donors go to the community-type blood drives,” McGuire said. “And with them being closed, it seems like they’re not reaching out and going to donation centers or finding other locations where they can give.”
The biggest amount of donations from African Americans was seen at community events at schools, which has also seen the biggest amount of cancellations for this fall, according to the Red Cross.
Because of cancellations this spring, the number of Black donors at these schools dropped from more than 15,000 in 2019 to 2,700 in 2020, according to the Red Cross.
McGuire said about 100,000 people in the U.S. have sickle cell disease and most of them are of African American or Latino descent.
Normal red blood cells are round and soft, but in sickle cell, they are hard and crescent-shaped, McGuire said. As a result, these blood cells struggle carrying oxygen to the rest of the body and can even block blood vessels and cause strokes, she said. Other complications can include severe pain as well as tissue and organ damage, McGuire said.
“People with sickle cell require multiple blood transfusions a year,” McGuire said.
The familiar blood types are A, B, AB, ABO and O. Blood receives its type due to the presence of at least one antigen, a substance that can trigger an immune response within the body.
But in addition to A and B, about 600 more antigens are known to exist, the Red Cross said. And some of those blood types are specific to certain ethnic and racial groups.
U-negative and Duffy-negative blood types are unique to the African American community, according to the Red Cross.
So people with sickle cell disease and one of these rare blood types rely on donations from the Black community.
“Fortunately, blood can be shipped across state lines,” McGuire said.
“We supply about 40% of the blood in the U.S,” McGuire said. “If a client does have a rare blood type, in the age of computers, we’re able to find it.”
To help ensure patients who need rare blood receive it, the Red Cross is part of the American Rare Blood Donor Program, a national organization that was established in 1960, McGuire said.
“It really helps to locate 90% of rare blood types request throughout the world,” McGuire said. “It operates 90 blood collection facilities; 45 are Red Cross facilities.”
To donate, visit redcross.org/give-blood.html.