Former English soccer player Emile Heskey started donating blood after discovering that two of his sons had the gene for sickle cell trait.
Carriers of the gene are at risk of having children born with sickle cell disease, which primarily affects people of Afro-Caribbean descent.
Sickle cell disease means that the red blood cells are sickle-shaped instead of circular. This leads to painful blockages that damage major organs and can culminate in a fatal stroke.
The NHS is facing a desperate shortage of black blood donors after a 50% increase in demand for black blood transfusions in the last three years.
Emile, 44, has teamed up with NHS Blood and Transplant to help encourage other black donors to register.
The former Liverpool, Leicester and Aston Villa striker said: “This is an important cause that is close to my heart as two of my children have sickle cell trait, which means that although they do not have sickle cell disease, they can pass on to their future children.
“I found donating real blood really easy.
“I was in and out in an hour. The actual blood donation took only ten minutes.
“We need a whole new generation of blood donors, especially people of black descent.
“Because they are more likely to donate more compatible blood to treat people with sickle cell anemia.
“Some sickle cell patients rely on regular transfusions to stay alive.
“Donating blood is simple and easy and can save up to three lives.”
A person who carries sickle cell trait can have children with the disease if their partner is also a carrier.
If both parents are carriers of sickle cell trait, there is a one in four chance that a child will be born with sickle cell disease.
Emile added: “I am proud to support NHS Blood and Transplant in urging people of black descent to register today to donate blood. It’s amazing that every time you make a donation you can help save up to three lives.
“More black blood donors are needed to help treat people with the sickle cell blood disorder, which mainly affects black people and is now the fastest growing genetic disorder in the UK. and the world”.
Emile, a father of six, has previously spoken about his concern that his older children carry sickle cell trait.
Tom Aggett, NHS Blood and Transplant Manager, said: “Emile kindly became a donor and donated blood to support our campaign to inspire more people from black communities to register as blood donors.
“We are very grateful for Emile’s support as it provides us with the opportunity to raise awareness of the urgent need for more donors of Black African and Black Caribbean heritage.
“The demand for black donors will continue to increase, as sickle cell anemia is the fastest growing genetic disorder.
“But now we have an opportunity to bridge the gap and help friends, neighbors and communities fighting sickle cell disease, as well as people who need life-saving transfusions in childbirth, cancer treatments or hospital surgery.” .
Questions and answers
Why is sickle cell disease such a big problem?
Sickle cell disorder, which is more common in people of black descent, is the fastest growing genetic disorder in the UK.
The patient’s blood becomes deformed and gets stuck in the blood vessels. Complications can be incredibly painful and life-threatening.
The number of patients with sickle cell disease who are likely to benefit from regular exchange transfusion rather than intermittent refilling is increasing.
Due to the shortage of black donors, we are only able to supply the most compatible blood in about 50% of requests.
If the NHS had more black donors, it could give more and better-matched blood and save more lives.
Why is the demand for Ro blood increasing so dramatically?
In recent years, clinical practice has established that many people with sickle cell disease benefit from whole blood transfusions rather than intermittent “recharge” transfusions.
This reduces the risk of strokes.
In March 2016, NICE recommended the use of automated transfusions for patients with sickle cell anemia.
These complete transfusions, known as red blood cell exchanges, have transformed the quality of life for sickle cell patients, but they use much more blood.
Up to 15 pints of blood cells can be replaced by the same number of healthy red blood cells.
How many black donors does NHS Blood and Transplant have?
Ethnically compatible blood is vital in stopping complications related to the body rejecting donor blood.
Only 2% of donors have type Ro blood, which is ten times more common in black people.
During 2021 there were about 17,000 active black blood donors, about 1.5% of the total donor base.
There has been a rapid increase in demand for blood types from black donors: about 50% in the last three years.
More and more Black donors are saving lives, but we can do so much more.
The numbers have risen by around 29% over the same period before a significant drop in donors during the Covid-19 pandemic.
What happens if you use a different blood type?
Patients who need repeated blood transfusions, such as sickle cell patients, are at especially high risk of alloimmunization.
This is when patients develop antibodies because the blood they received was not as compatible.
The NHS sometimes substitutes O negative when a compatible blood type is not available.
For sickle cell patients, it may be better than no new blood, but it puts them at higher risk for a transfusion reaction.
Well-matched blood prevents the creation of additional antibodies, reduces complications, and improves the chances of finding suitable donations in the future.
Why aren’t more black people donating blood?
NHS Blood and Transplant says there are a number of barriers to donating blood to people from black and minority ethnic communities.
Chief among these are a lack of trust in organizations, myths surrounding the blood donation process, and gaps in awareness of the need for Ro blood to help people with sickle cell disease.
Donating blood is easy and safe because in just one hour you can save three lives or transform the life of a person with sickle cell disease.
How can you help
Sign up as a blood donor today and get involved in the NHS recovery.
Patients need blood throughout the year and the NHS must ensure a constant supply.
In some areas of the country there are limited appointments for first-time donors, so if you can’t find a space right away, look a few weeks or months in advance.
Visit www.blood.co.uk or call 0300 123 23 23 to register and start saving lives.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.