Photo by Sharon Penn for the American Red Cross

By Gordon Williams, Red Cross Volunteer

True or false: All the blood collected by the American Red Cross is pretty much alike, no matter who donated that blood.

The answer is “false,” and the reason it is false explains why the Red Cross will hold Seattle’s first Dr. Charles Drew blood drive February 21st at the Central Area Youth Assn (CAYA), 119 23rd Ave, a center of African-American life in Seattle since its founding 55 years ago.

More to the point, and the reason the correct answer to the teaser is “false,” is that not all blood is alike. There are small, but crucial differences in blood, based on the donor’s race and country of origin.

The blood drive February 21 honors Dr. Drew, a mid-20th Century African-American doctor and scientist who invented the collection, processing and distribution of blood as we know it today. The blood drive– co-sponsored by Safeway—highlights the legacy of Dr. Drew and aims to expand outreach efforts to increase blood donations among the African-American population to help ensure patients have access to lifesaving blood products.

Why diversity is important among blood donors

A diverse blood supply is critical to being able to help all patients in need. Blood from people of a similar race and ethnicity can provide the best health outcomes for the patient and fewer potential complications from a transfusion.

Blood transfusions work best when blood from the donor matches the recipient’s blood type. Because there is no telling ahead of time the race or nationality of blood recipients, the Red Cross must collect and distribute a blood supply as diverse as possible. Nearly 3 million people donate blood to the Red Cross each year–with Red Cross teams averaging 400 blood drives each day. The more diverse that donor base is, the more people who stand to benefit from a blood transfusion.

Photo by Amanda Romney

Blood is categorized by type–O, A, B or AB. The classifications are based on substances within the blood called antibodies and antigens. Antibodies are protein molecules in the blood; antigens are substances that stimulate the body to produce antibodies.

What makes for more diversity is that human blood is further classified by the presence or absence of what scientists call the RH antigen–an inherited protein found on the surface of red blood cells. If it is present, the blood is classified as positive. If it isn’t, the blood is classified as negative.

The most common type of blood is O positive–shared by 37% of the U.S. population. Just 1% of us have type AB negative.

Even that isn’t the whole story. There isn’t a single antigen found in human blood but hundreds of them–some universal but some specific to racial and ethnic groups.

For a transfusion to do what it is supposed to, blood from donor and recipient must match exactly. Sometimes finding that match is easy but finding a match for some recipientscan be very difficult. A January 17 Washington Times articlesays that very rare blood types are found only once per 10,000 people.

Central to the Dr. Drew blood drive is the constant need for blood from African-American donors because of sickle cell disease. The disease makes blood cells hard and “sickle” shaped instead of soft and round. Because the cells are misshapen, blood in sickle cell patients has difficulty flowing smoothly through the body–hence difficulty in carrying oxygen through the body.

An estimated 100,000 Americans have sickle cell disease–most of them African Americans. Patients with sickle cell need frequent blood transfusions throughout their lives. A single patient with sickle cell can receive up to 100 pints of blood per year. “Ideally,” says a Red Cross fact sheet, “the blood should come from individuals that are of similar ethnic or genetic background to the patient. African-American donors are almost three times more likely to match the blood needed for sickle-cell patients than are non-African-American donors.”

It is this convergence that makes the Dr. Drew blood drive so important. With the blood drive hoping to reach Seattle’s African-American community, the blood collected can then be available to help sickle cell patients and others in need of blood.

The blood drive comes during Black History Month and it honors Dr. Charles Drew, a renowned figure in African-American history. 

The Dr. Charles Drew blood drive also occurs as the Red Cross urges eligible donors to make an appointment to give blood now and help sustain a sufficient community blood supply this winter. Donors of all races and ethnicities are encouraged to give blood in support of a diverse blood supply. Donation appointments can be easily scheduled by using the free Blood Donor App, visiting or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) and using sponsor code CharlesDrewSeattle.

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