Sickle cell awareness in churches increases black blood donors

Thursday, December 18, 2008 | 5:46 p.m. CST; updated 6:56 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 18, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Sickle cell researchers in St. Louis say they've significantly increased blood donations to fight the disease with appeals targeted at predominantly black church congregations in the city.

Blacks have tended not to donate blood, they said, but the St. Louis program appears to have changed some minds.

Michael DeBaun, a sickle-cell disease specialist at St. Louis Children's Hospital, launched Sickle Cell Sabbath and blood donation drives five years ago at 13 predominantly black churches in St. Louis.

On Sundays from February to June, the congregations learned about the disease and treatment benefits of blood transfusions and bone marrow transplants. Church-sponsored blood drives were encouraged.

Of the nearly 700 donors who participated in blood drives, 422, or 60 percent, were first-time donors.

Results of the study are published in the advance online publication of the journal Transfusion.

"Most people at the churches didn't know the impact blood donorship has," said Michael Johnson, chaplain for the program who also has sickle cell disease. "Our education process increased the number of donors significantly. Once people understand the importance of giving blood, they become repeat donors."

Johnson said fears, myths and bad experiences associated with medical research, such as the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study, has kept blacks from donating blood and organs.

From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service withheld adequate treatment from a group of poor black men from Alabama who had syphilis.

But the Sickle Cell Sabbath program helped the churchgoers understand blood donation was safe and needed, and that they could save a life, he said.

Sickle cell disease is the most common genetic disease in African-Americans, affecting about one in 400 newborns. Patients with the disease have red blood cells that contain an abnormal type of hemoglobin that causes the normally round, flexible red blood cells to become stiff and sickle-shaped.

The sickle cells can't pass through tiny blood vessels, preventing blood from reaching some tissues, resulting in tissue and organ damage, even stroke.

DeBaun said in a statement that blood transfusions and bone marrow transplants replace sickle cells with healthy red blood cells. He said the blood of African-American donors is more likely to be compatible with that of children with the disease.

Johnson said children as young as six months with the disease can have a stroke. But regular blood transfusions can help prevent subsequent ones.

"Once we find a child and adult match, the adult can be called to help transfuse the child," he said. "We have many matches" among the St. Louis churchgoers.


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