Red Cross Launches Initiative to Diversify Blood Donations

A young Black man on his phone in a blood donation center, he is giving blood and squeezing a red ball.

Vladimir Vladimirov / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Frequent blood transfusions are a common and necessary treatment for sickle cell disease, which primarily affects people from racial and ethnic minorities.
  • As part of National Sickle Cell Awareness Month, the Illinois Medical District in Chicago is partnering with the American Red Cross to encourage underrepresented groups to donate blood.
  • Donation centers are taking precautions to protect all donors from COVID-19.

As part of National Sickle Cell Awareness Month, the Illinois Medical District (IMD) in Chicago is partnering with the American Red Cross to encourage people from racial and ethnic minorities to donate blood.

The partnership's goal is to increase the organization's blood supply, which is used to treat people with sickle cell disease as well as other conditions.

What Is Sickle Cell Disease?

Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder. The genetic anomaly causes red blood cells to take on a hardened, sickle shape instead of the normally soft and round shape. The abnormal blood cells block blood flow to tissues and organs. A sickle cell crises cause severe pain, and in many cases, is life-threatening. People of any ethnicity can have sickle cell disease, but it more commonly occurs in people of African, Asian, Latin American, and Mediterranean descent.

“Sickle cell disease is an invisible and enduring health disparity in the U.S.,” IMD's interim executive director, Kate Schellinger, said in a press release. “People who donate blood can alleviate the suffering of sickle cell patients and contribute to their long-term health.”

According to the Red Cross, people with sickle cell disease may need to have as many as 100 units of blood each year to treat the complications of the disease.

However, frequent transfusions make it harder to find compatible blood products because sickle cell patients develop an immune response to antigens (native markers) on the surface of donor red blood cells.

Blood donations from underrepresented groups can be life-saving, but blood banks are experiencing a lack of diversity in donors and blood products.

Black patients and others from racial and ethnic minorities also often have unique antigens on their red blood cells that are uncommon in White patients. A lack of diversity in donor blood presents major challenges.

Blood Donations Can Help in Emergencies

Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs a blood product. Having a steady donor blood supply is critical for treating patients with cancer, surgery and trauma patients, and people experiencing childbirth complications.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed added stress on blood banks. Centers are experiencing an increased need for blood and a decrease in donations—an imbalance that is further exacerbating the blood shortage.

“As COVID-19 cases increase, blood donations assure that hospitals and patients have continued access to vital blood products,” Schellinger said.

What This Means For You

The American Red Cross wants to make it easy, accessible, and safe to donate blood for all who are willing and able to do so. All Red Cross Donation sites are taking precautions to protect donors and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. To find American Red Cross blood drives and schedule a blood donation, visit, download the Blood Donor App, or call 1-800-RED-CROSS.

Type O Donors Are Crucial

Hospitals depend on type O blood to help patients in emergencies. Because all other blood types can receive type O blood, people with this type are called universal donors.

Black blood donors can especially play an essential role. Around 51% of Black people have type O blood, while about 45% of White people do.

In a press release, Celena Roldán, the CEO of the American Red Cross Illinois Region, said that the Red Cross is “working with Black community organizations to host blood drives in convenient locations that help bring donation opportunities closer to home."

Community partnerships help ensure closely matched blood products are available for patients with sickle cell disease.

“As an organization dedicated to alleviating suffering, the Red Cross is committed to the health and well-being of all communities,” Roldán said. “Maintaining a diverse blood supply is critical to improving health outcomes for all patients.”

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sickle Cell Disease Association of America. Sickle Cell Disease Stats and Facts.

  2. University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System. Sickle Cell Disease.

  3. American Red Cross. September Is Sickle Cell Awareness Month: Bringing Attention to this Disease and Why Blood Donations Are Vital for Those Battling It.

  4. American Red Cross. National Reference Laboratory for Blood Group Serology.

  5. Community Blood Center. Blood Donation Facts.

  6. Garcia-Lopez J, Delgadillo J, Vilarrodona A, et al. SARS-Cov-2/COVID-19 pandemic: first wave, impact, response and lessons learnt in a fully integrated regional blood and tissue bank. A narrative report. Blood Transfusion. 2021;19(2):158-167. doi:10.2450/2021.0259-20

  7. American Red Cross. Type O Blood.

  8. American Red Cross. Facts About Blood and Blood Types.

By Cyra-Lea Drummond, BSN, RN
 Cyra-Lea, BSN, RN, is a writer and nurse specializing in heart health and cardiac care.