A few months ago, I received a letter from the NHS informing me that I have the sickle cell trait. For those of you who are unfamiliar, sickle cell disease is a group of red blood cell disorders. Red blood cells contain haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body, and people who suffer from sickle cell produce abnormally shaped red blood cells. These ‘sickle’ shaped cells die prematurely or can get stuck in small blood vessels, blocking them and causing serious medical problems. Sickle cell anaemia is the most serious type of sickle cell disease, and those who have it are susceptible to life-threatening infections, loss of vision or stroke and the anaemia can lead to them needing blood transfusions. People who have the sickle cell trait do not have the disease – they have inherited sickle haemoglobin from one parent and normal haemoglobin from the other, so it is thought that the trait should not affect their general health (although, after reading an interesting thread on Twitter with other trait carriers, I think more research into this needs to be done), but it may affect their children depending on the other parent.
The NHS wrote me this letter because they identified the sickle cell trait when testing my blood after my last blood donation. I already knew that I carried the trait, as my mother is also a carrier and she had told me many years ago. It is, in fact, the driving force behind why I give blood and why I’m writing this post encouraging all my Black followers to do the same.
Ok. So why?
Sickle cell disease primarily affects people of African and Caribbean descent. People of the same ethnic group are more likely to have similar blood types. As mentioned earlier, people with sickle cell disease sometimes need regular blood transfusions, and this means they need closely matched blood to avoid complications. There is a particular blood subtype that is rare but always in demand: the Ro subtype. This subtype is far more common in Black people – we are TEN TIMES more likely than white people to carry it.
Connecting the dots yet? Black people are more likely to carry this subtype, and are also primarily affected by sickle cell disease and therefore need that subtype of blood for transfusions. At the moment only 2% of overall blood donors have the Ro subtype, and only 1% of people who donate blood in England are Black. The NHS needs at least 40,000 more Black donors across blood groups to meet the rising demand for more closely matched blood. For the past two years, the NHS has been working tirelessly to encourage more Black people to donate, via social media, TV, its website, et cetera. More recently, it has announced measures to make it even easier to register and book donation appointments in certain key areas of London, extending opening hours at centres in Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, and has also set up a new 24/7 Ro appointment helpline for people with the Ro subtype to more easily book appointments.
I’m not entirely sure why it is that more Black people – who are able to – don’t give blood. But, after reading this, I’m hoping you’ll be more motivated to do so.
It doesn’t hurt – trust me!
If you’re worried about it being painful, don’t be. The needle insertion feels like a tiny pinch. If you have siblings I’m sure you’ve been pinched before and survived. Once the donation starts you don’t feel anything; you can scroll through your phone while sitting there – you can take a pic and post it to encourage your networks to get involved. The awesome staff at the donor centres are really friendly and take great care of you throughout and afterwards, offering you tea/coffee, sweet drinks and snacks to help you recover and be on your merry way.
We know time is of the essence – it doesn’t take long
If you’re thinking you don’t have time, as mentioned earlier it is now easier than ever to book an appointment and the process takes about an hour, if that, so you can totally spare it. My last donation was round the corner from my workplace, so I dipped out to do it on my lunch break. Easy.
And if you don’t know, now you know…
If you simply didn’t realise your blood was this important, well, now you know. Every donation helps save a life and those living with debilitating diseases such as sickle cell rely on our donations to help manage their condition, and it is just so easy to do.
Now I know that not everyone is able to give blood, for a range of reasons. Having sickle cell trait doesn’t prevent me from giving blood at the moment, but the NHS’s letter let me know that it might if they start having difficulty filtering my blood in future. But for as long as I can donate I will, and if you can you should too. This is an important issue for our community and one we can easily help to address, so let’s do it.
Have you donated before? Will you donate now? Leave a comment below!