Black churches help enlist first-time blood donors

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Black churches that hold blood drives after informing parishioners about the importance of blood donations for children with sickle cell disease will get a big upsurge in first-time donors, new research shows.

While the number of actual donors remains low, the developers of the Sickle Cell Sabbath Program argue that, if the effort is sustained, more African Americans will be encouraged to donate blood.

One in 400 African American newborns has sickle cell disease, in which the red blood cells take on a crescent form that makes it impossible for them to flow through the smallest blood vessels. Sufferers experience pain, organ damage, infections and stroke, Dr. Michael R. DeBaun of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and colleagues write.

Monthly transfusions can prevent strokes in sickle cell patients, but these patients can develop immune reactions against transfused blood cells if the donor isn’t matched closely enough. While African American donors are more likely to have red blood cell types that are compatible with those of sickle cell patients, DeBaun and his team say, blacks represent just 6.5 percent of all blood donors — compared to 13 percent of the general population.

To encourage more African Americans to donate blood, DeBaun and his colleagues established the Sickle Cell Sabbath Program in 1999. During a church service, two to three weeks before a scheduled American Red Cross blood drive, program organizers or other trained individuals presented a five minute information session on sickle cell disease and the importance of blood donation.

In the journal Transfusion, the researchers report data from 2003 to 2006 for 13 African American churches participating in the program that held a total of 34 blood drives. Church congregation sizes ranged from 300 to 5,000 people.

A total of 699 people donated blood, 60 percent of whom were first-time donors. Over the same time period, first time donors accounted for just 12.2 percent of the blood donor pool for the entire St. Louis metropolitan area.

“Despite the high proportion of first-time donors, the total number of donors is low when compared to congregation size,” DeBaun and his team write. However, they propose that continuing the Sickle Cell Sabbath Program could eventually bring in more blood donors from the African American community.

SOURCE: Transfusion, published online November 25, 2008.

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