More blood donations needed from minorities, say blood centers
June 7, 2019

Blood banks need donations from neighborhoods with large minority populations.

By Sheila Elliott

A statewide coalition of blood banks has banded together to alert all Illinois communities about the increased need for donated blood, particularly in minority communities.

The Illinois Coalition of Community Blood Centers (ICCBC) took that message to Springfield recently, letting State lawmakers know that blood centers always need blood donations from all Illinois communities but that they especially need them from neighborhoods with large minority populations, where finding blood type matches can be more challenging. The ICCBC organized a press conference in the Statehouse to highlight National Minority Health Month in April.

“People don’t realize the lifesaving features of donating blood,” Margaret Vaughn, ICCBC’s government affairs director, told Gazette Chicago. “Regardless of where the person is treated, every patient’s chances improve when blood transfused is the appropriate phenotype match.”

Others in the healthcare community confirmed Vaughn’s sentiments, including Sally Campbell-Lee, MD, director of transfusion medicine at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System (UI Health), who specializes in blood banking, sickle cell, and transfusion medicine.

The need for blood throughout the state never diminishes, but areas with diverse populations face special challenges when it comes to providing enough of the blood types to match patient needs, she said. “The best chance of a match is someone of your own ethnic group,” Campbell-Lee said, noting that blood banks not only need more donors from all communities but require more consistent donors—individuals who donate blood on a regular basis.

Martinez an advocate

State Senator Iris Martinez (D-20th) of West Town has made minority awareness of blood donation needs one of her top issues.

“It’s very important that we educate the Latino community about the importance of becoming blood donors,” Martinez said. “The majority of Latinos have type O blood, which is in high demand because it can be transfused to patients with other blood types.”

The ICCBC is composed of non-profit blood centers from throughout Illinois. It works to raise awareness of the value of volunteer blood donations and provides advocacy and public education.

The American Red Cross, which provides about 40% of U.S. blood components, estimates the nation needs 36,000 units of red blood cells every day. The number of blood units donated annually by Americans remains low, compared with the number of individuals eligible to donate blood, according to the Red Cross, which noted only about three percent of Americans who could meet the standards for blood donation actually give blood. Demand, regardless of blood type needed, consistently exceeds what is available.

The situation for minority patients presents additional complexity, said Vaughn. Hypertension remains significantly higher among African Americans than other population groups, which may lead to other health issues and boost the need for blood transfusions. Patients with sickle-cell anemia, an illness transmitted genetically among African Americans, also face the likelihood of more frequent transfusions within a lifetime, she said. 

Both conditions make the issue of phenotype-matched red blood cells significant. “It becomes more difficult to get a match,” when a greater proportion of donated blood is from sources from outside an ethnic group, she said.

Circumstances differ somewhat among Latinos, a population where, as Martinez said, type O blood is most common. Among the four blood types, O is the most easily compatible with the three other types of blood, making type O blood donations important in medical care, Vaughn said.

Five percent from minorities

The State of Illinois estimates 37% of Illinois’s population belongs to an ethnic minority group. The ICCBC estimates about five percent of the state’s donated blood comes from either an African American or a Latino donor. Health officials want that number to increase because more minority donors would improve chances that hospitals could match a patient’s blood needs with what is available through blood banks. Also, the banks could make more units of type O blood available to hospitals.

Vaughn said ICCBC is working to increase awareness of these facts and encourage minority blood donations.

“Many in the African American community are not aware of this,” Campbell-Lee said, referring to the importance of more frequent blood donations. “People in general are not aware of the need for blood, period.”

She added that blood banks need more effective efforts to reach churches and community organizations to heighten awareness encourage more frequent blood drives.

To volunteer with the American Red Cross or for more information, call (312) 729-6100. For Campbell-Lee’s office, call (312) 996-1350. For the ICCBC, log on to www.illinoisbloodcenters.com or call (217) 280-0206. For Martinez’s office, call (773) 278-2020.