African American blood donors needed to help people with sickle cell disease

The genetic blood disorder occurs in 1 of every 365 African American births.

People with sickle cell disease may need monthly blood transfusions throughout their lives. Some may need multiple units of donated blood at a time.

And some of these patients require blood from a “matched” donor of similar ethnic background, says Dawn Ward, MD, medical director of the UCLA Health Blood & Platelet Center.

“Because this disease affects primarily people of African descent, the best matches for blood donations are people of African descent,” Dr. Ward says. “So we really try to appeal to our African American donors and the African American population to serve as blood donors for sickle cell disease patients.”

What is sickle cell disease?

Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder in which red blood cells become hard, sticky and misshapen. Instead of being round, the cells are crescent-shaped, like a sickle. They carry less oxygen, have a shorter lifespan and can impede circulation, resulting in severe pain, infection, vision loss, lung troubles and stroke.

“There’s hardly an organ system that’s not affected by the sickle process,” said Gary J. Schiller, MD, a hematologist and director of the UCLA Health Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Transplant Program.

Sickle cell disease results when a child inherits genes from both parents that code for abnormal hemoglobin. The disease occurs in one of every 365 African American births and one in every 16,300 Hispanic American births, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Inheriting one abnormal hemoglobin gene results in a condition called sickle cell trait, which occurs in one of every 13 African American births. These individuals generally do not experience symptoms of sickle cell disease, but can pass the abnormal gene onto their offspring, Dr. Ward says.

The role of blood donation in sickle cell treatment

Some people with sickle cell disease need regular blood transfusions beginning in early childhood.

“When children are as young as 1 to 2 years old, they may present with some of the signs and symptoms of sickle cell anemia, and will require blood transfusions from that time for the remainder of their life,” Dr. Ward says.

Antigen-matched blood may be required when a person with sickle cell disease develops alloantibodies to red blood cell antigens. This is when a transfusion recipient makes antibodies against components of the red cells in the donor blood. Such alloantibodies can lead to negative reactions, including destruction of the transfused red blood cells.

With sickle cell disease, red blood cells are a crescent shape, rather than round.

Most blood donors in the United States are white, Dr. Ward says, “and the antigen profile of many of those donors is different from the antigen profile of our patients.” Transfusing blood from African American donors and donors of African decent generally eliminates the problem.

The number of African American blood donors, however, is “extremely low,” both in Los Angeles and nationally, Dr. Ward says. “There’s really a campaign to increase the diversity of our blood donors,” she says.

All donors welcome

Blood donations overall have yet to bounce back from critical shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re still challenged with bringing in enough donors to supply all of our patients,” says Dr. Ward.

People 16 and older who weigh at least 110 pounds and are generally in good health are usually eligible to donate blood. The process is easy and safe, takes less than an hour and provides the gift of life to someone in need.

Learn more about donating blood at UCLA Health.

Find out more about UCLA Health’s new sickle cell disease center.