Calls for blood donors never seem to end. Especially in summer, when people are on vacation and out of normal routines, blood drives suffer.
But Dr. Ify Osunkwo, a specialist in sickle cell disease, isn’t appealing for just any blood.
“We need to increase the number of blood units that represent the unique blood types of the African-American population,” Osunkwo said. “They are the ones who more often than not are affected by sickle cell disease.”
Osunkwo, who came to Carolinas HealthCare System from Emory University earlier this year, has created a comprehensive sickle cell center, with doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and case managers to help “manage the disease” instead of just treating episodes of pain.
“You have to manage the patient as a whole person,” Osunkwo said. “You’re not just dealing with emergencies.”
Sickle cell disease is a hereditary disorder in which the body makes sickle-shaped, instead of disc-shaped, blood cells. These abnormal cells are stiff and sticky and tend to block blood flow in the limbs and organs. That can cause pain and organ damage and increase the risk for infection.
People can carry the sickle cell trait without passing it on. But if both parents have it, their children will inherit the disease.
Years ago, people with sickle cell disease died before they were 21. But since the 1970s, with the national mandate for newborn screening, people with the disease are living longer. Daily antibiotics can help prevent life-threatening infections. Since the 1990s, the drug hydroxyurea “has increased the life expectancy of sickle cell patients significantly,” Osunkwo said. “We have 80-year-olds with the disease.”
And that brings another set of problems. “Just living with the disease for a long time, the cells damage your organs. It can cause blindness, joint damage, kidney failure,” Osunkwo said. “As they live longer, they need a lot more medical support, and that comes along with the need for transfusion.”
That’s why she, in collaboration with Community Blood Center of the Carolinas, is appealing for blood from African-Americans. Multiple blood transfusions can be damaging if they aren’t matched closely.
Most of us know the major blood types – O, A, B and AB, positive or negative. But there are also minor blood types, such as little c, big C, little e and big E, that vary among ethnic groups. “If I get blood with big C positive but I’m a big C negative, I’m going to have a reaction against that person’s blood,” Osunkwo said.
People can donate blood even if they carry sickle cell traits, she said. “We want everybody to go and be screened.”