Causes: Historical Distrust & Lack of Education

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 four of seven in our ongoing series.

While our last piece discussed physical barriers to minority blood donation in the United States, the issues are much deeper and more complicated. Among other reasons given for low donor rates, studies have found “fear,” “apathy,” and “less likely to know where to donate,” indicating a systemic distrust of the American healthcare system.

These concerns have serious historical and factual bases--there is the blatant racism of early blood donation; the fact that between 1932 and the 1970s, the Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis, conducted upon Black men without their consent, told its participants that they had “bad blood” instead of providing proper diagnosis or treatment; there is the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were used for medical research posthumously and without her consent; and, even today, that Black women are approximately two and a half times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. These are only a few of countless other similar, equally horrifying acts of medical discrimination against BIPOC patients in the US, and, as the Chicago Tribune writes, they have contributed to a “suspicion of some aspects of the medical community passed down through generations.”

Even blood donation, which should theoretically be safe and simple and unbiased, cannot escape these suspicions, and understandably so. Its history is patchy; its campaigns and drives are more likely to target affluent, largely white areas; and its process is often prone to myths and rumors. Non-donors may fear the process, concerned about serious adverse effects (which are rare) or considering the blood supply unsafe (which it isn’t). There are a host of smaller, often complicated eligibility requirements--recent travel, piercings, low iron levels, among others--that require untangling, and an assumption that blood donation takes a long time or hurts (it doesn’t take very long, and it only hurts for a moment). Without education on the issue, or incentives and resources to learn about it, it’s easy to write off blood donation as inconvenient, dangerous, and altogether not worth it, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

At UBI, we’ve talked at length about the urgency for blood donation, and we can’t stress it enough. However, we haven’t talked enough about the need for diverse blood, and it’s time that we fix that. Unlike early myths perpetuated by the US military and Red Cross in the 1940s, blood is not fundamentally different between any two human beings, regardless of race. But, unfortunately, it’s not quite that clear-cut, either. As antigens can vary between racial and ethnic groups, the discussion of universal blood donation can become uncomfortably muddled. One of the most prominent examples, sickle cell disease, comes with complicated donor and recipient restrictions (we will discuss them more at length in an upcoming installment) that are not sufficiently discussed. As Antonia Warren, a social worker, told the Chicago Tribune, she “didn’t know about the need for blood from black donors” before she began her job, and has since begun to donate. It may not always be so simple, but learning about the problem is a very good place to start.