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Why we should be doing more to advocate for blood donation in our community

Black blood donors make up only about 1% of the NHS’s existing donor base, despite the number of donors increasing over the last few years. Amongst the BAME community we make up less than 50% of currently registered donors as well as new donors registering. Unfortunately, the need for black donors doesn’t come down to just wanting more of us on the register. Unknown to most people, donations of blood from black donors are especially important for Sickle cell anaemia. Sickle cell anaemia is a genetic condition that predominantly affects Afro-Caribbean people. With more than 15,000 people in the UK affected by the condition the number of black donors in comparison is disproportionate. The condition affects the blood cells, causing them to be sickle shaped and be stuck in blood vessels causing the symptoms of the condition. People with sickle cell anaemia tend to suffer from painful episodes known as sickle cell crises which are difficult to manage with conventional analgesia. Other symptoms also include increased risk of infection and anaemia. There is also a reduced life expectancy for people living with sickle cell disease especially severe forms.

So, why the need for more black donors? We know that people with sickle cell anaemia need frequent blood transfusions to manage their condition and to minimise the painful sickle crises that they endure. It is also known that a rare subtype of blood known as the Ro subtype is needed in these transfusions and this blood type is more likely to be found in black donors. As the blood transfusions needed by sickle cell patients needs to be best matched to them, it is more beneficial for the blood to come from a donor of the same ethnic background.

In 2017 GiveBloodNHS launched a twitter thread on black blood donation that went viral for good and bad reasons. The intention of this campaign was to increase awareness of blood donation specifically to help increase registration amongst black donors. The campaign succeeded in this and was especially designed to target and educate the Afro-Caribbean community. Unfortunately, the campaign was met with some resistance and was accused of being racist and selective. Fortunately, this backlash was cleared by the NHS as they reiterated the message of the campaign with facts about blood donation and sickle cell anaemia. Sadly, both within the Afro-Caribbean community blood donation and sickle cell anaemia are not discussed widely enough. The idea of blood donation within our community is often met with negativity partly due to lack of education on process and importance of donation as well as fear or mistrust of healthcare provisions.

Here is where we pose the question: Who is responsible for educating the Afro-Caribbean community about blood donation and sickle cell anaemia?Does the responsibility fall on the NHS, healthcare professionals or charities? The responsibility really falls on us, black medics who are uniquely positioned between having access to our community as well as the education and knowledge from our medical background. We should be particularly active in promoting blood donation within our community by being an example ourselves, registering ourselves as donors and as well as starting the conversations outside our medical circles. Awareness seems to fall normally to charities that advocate for sickle cell anaemia such as the Sickle Cell Societyand they’re work for sickle cell survivors cannot go unnoticed as they work to support them though their condition. As black medical professionals we should seek to work with these organisations to learn how we can both raise awareness but also how within our work we can better manage patients when they present with symptoms of their condition.

I personally registered to donate blood and donated blood for the first time 2 years ago. In my own mind before donating, the process was daunting, and I’d imagined it to be something far more draining than what it was. Even as a medical student at that time, I was not well informed about the blood donation process and this had led me to delay my own registration. I find it funny that we practice venepuncture and cannulation so easily as medics but when it comes to us being on the receiving end, we have reservations. The whole donation process was easier and far less dramatic than I’d imagined. After about 30 minutes the whole process was done, and I was able to go about my day as normal. After donating I felt to bring up the discussion of donation with family members and as expected it the idea of donation was met with responses on the myths usually linked to the process as well as misinformation. From this, I realised that without us as black medics educating our own community there is no way we can spread the message any stronger. Health issues that predominantly affect Afro-Caribbean people need not fall by the way side as we can raise awareness within our own community. Being our own healthcare advocates within our communities can be such a powerful medium. Coupling this age of social media as well as our unique position as black medical professionals we can truly make a difference in educating more of our community.

Learn more about blood donation here:

Learn more about Sickle cell anaemia here:

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