Blood Donation and Race: Demographic Disparities

The University Blood Initiative stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and is committed to bringing about a fairer, more equitable future. As such, we are spending this week highlighting the systemic racism, discrimination, and barriers to blood donation Black Americans have historically experienced and continue to face. This is part two of seven in our ongoing series.

Yesterday we talked about the segregated origins and history of blood donation, today we’re talking about the present. In recent years, a number of researchers have studied the demographics of blood donation, and have exposed enormous socioeconomic and racial disparities among donors. As we’ve previously discussed at length, most blood donors are older and younger generations remain disengaged, but that’s far from the only problem. The Stanford Blood Center claims that “the average blood donor is a college-educated, caucasian male between the ages of 30 and 50,” and plenty of statistics back this up. If approximately 38% of the country’s population is eligible to donate blood, only some 10% actually do--and those donors are disproportionately white.

A 2011 study conducted by researchers at Emory University found that approximately 78% of blood donations came from white donors, while Black donors supplied about 16%, and other donors of color gave even less. While some of these disparities can likely be attributed to the nation’s demographic makeup, that can’t explain all of them. The New York Blood Center found that Black donors contribute at roughly half the rates of white donors (1.1% of the country’s white population donated blood, compared to 0.6% Black). The study is from 2006, and the proportion of nonwhite blood donors has since increased, but these changes seem correlated with a relative increase in population, and the gap has by no means closed. (It is worth noting that, though statistics vary, this is an issue among most potential BIPOC donors, not just Black.)

So, why is this happening, and why is it such a serious problem? We’ll be going into more specifics in the next series update, but the general causes can largely be attributed to be lack of access, information, and a historic distrust of an often discriminatory healthcare system. Unfortunately, the country needs diverse blood. All human blood is fundamentally the same, but some antigens can be ethnically or racially specific--the most prominent example is sickle cell anemia. With such a homogenous blood supply, patients requiring specific, rarer types of blood may not be able to receive adequate treatment. It’s yet another way America’s healthcare system routinely fails patients of color, but it’s one we have the power to fix, or at least to try.

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