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 six of seven in our ongoing series.
As we have been exploring over the course of the past week, we need diverse blood donors, and we need them badly. A host of barriers to donation, from physical accessibility issues to a lack of relevant education and (warranted) historical distrust of the healthcare system, have contributed to a discrepancy between Black and white blood donors, which we are long overdue to fix. A problem this deeply systemic, only one facet of America’s appalling history of racism, will not be easily overcome, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing everything in our power to try.
Over the past few years in particular, organizations across the US have begun interventions to increase rates of BIPOC blood donations -- but, because it is not an issue too often discussed, they haven’t necessarily received much media attention. The American Red Cross, the largest and most well-known blood bank in the country, routinely posts articles encouraging diverse blood donation and spotlighting the memory of Dr. Charles Drew, “an African American surgeon and modern blood banking pioneer” and the first medical director of the Red Cross, a surprisingly progressive piece of history for an organization with notoriously segregated origins. More proactively, the American Red Cross Southern Region ran a “Partners for Life” program, in which sickle cell disease patients were matched with dedicated donors who could provide safe, antigen-matched transfusions. Other interventions include mailing educational materials about SDC, which has successfully led to increases in Black blood donors, and increased engagement with churches and community centers through the Sickle Cell Sabbath Program.
At the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, a donor history questionnaire has led to targeted recruitment campaigns, including “emailing donors who self-identified as part of a racial/ethnic minority group” and “contacting racially/ethnically-focused student groups to organize blood drives with the Jefferson Blood Donor Center.” The center found that their interventions did not significantly change donor demographics, and a 2016 study of “a Culturally Tailored Internet-Delivered Intervention” to increase Black blood donor rates came to similar conclusions, but the dedication to these campaigns is still a promising start--blood centers are aware of the need for diverse blood, and are working to combat it.
More positively, in Chicago, Dr. A. Kyle Mack, a pediatric hematologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital, has begun initiatives with the support of Lurie and the Red Cross to combat the need for diverse blood donation. By attaching blue tags to donations from Black donors, it can more easily be given to sickle cell patients at Lurie. Mack visits churches and community group events throughout the South Side to raise awareness and encourage donation. He hopes that, “as an African-American doctor, he can help inspire trust in black patients and donors,” and the blue tag program includes educational materials at sites ahead of blood drives to “build interest.”
Mack has spoken at length about his efforts, and writes in Stat News that “Since the program started in 2008, we have collected more than 4,000 units of blood from African-American donors for sickle cell patients.” He is only one man and one campaign among many, but he is proof that intervention, even something as simple as increasing awareness, education, and trust in the system, can make an enormous difference.