ATLANTA — September is Sickle Cell Awareness Month, and it is estimated that 100,000 people across the U.S. live with the genetically inherited blood disease. Georgia is home to 10 percent of the population affected by this crippling and life-threatening disorder, which distorts smooth, round blood cells, turning them hard and crescent-shaped.
For Dee Dixon, newly appointed CEO for the American Red Cross of Georgia, and her daughter, Kyra, advocating for a diverse blood supply and sickle cell awareness is a personal mission. While the mother and daughter do not have sickle cell disease, both inherited the sickle cell trait and have seen their extended family impacted by the disorder, which disproportionately affects the African American community.
In efforts to raise awareness about sickle cell, the two visited the American Red Cross’ Midtown Blood Donation Center last week to give blood for the very first time together. Though blood donations or products from sickle cell trait donors cannot be used to help sickle cell patients specifically, their donations can help other patients in need of lifesaving blood. Each blood donation made can save up to three lives.
“As the new CEO for the American Red Cross of Georgia and a carrier of the sickle cell trait, my hope is that I can be an example and game-changer,” said Dixon. “I want people to know that donating matters. Diverse blood donors matter, and I am thrilled to be spreading this message alongside my daughter, who is also a carrier of the trait.”
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that about 3 million Americans carry the sickle cell trait and may be unaware of their status. The sickle cell trait does not offer any symptoms in most cases, making the genetic disorder challenging to detect. Testing at birth for the gene was not widely performed until 2006. An estimated 1 in 13 African American children born in the U.S. carry the sickle cell trait.
While Dixon and her immediate family did not inherit sickle cell disease, she does have close relatives who have passed away due to complications from the disorder and is aware of how debilitating sickle cell disease can be.
“I have a cousin who passed away after dealing with difficulties stemming from sickle cell,” she said. “She left behind a young son. Before passing away, she was in and out of the hospital and even received a hip replacement at a very young age. She was only 37 years old when she died.”
Those living with sickle cell disease are often subject to extreme pain and life-threatening complications that derive from blood cells being unable to travel smoothly and carry oxygen to the rest of the body. Blood transfusion is essential in managing sickle cell disease as it helps improve the mobility of blood cells. Matching a patient to a donor of the same race or similar ethnicity is also essential to prevent complications from transfusions.
This month, the American Red Cross launched a national initiative to grow the number of blood donors who are black to help patients with sickle cell disease and improve health outcomes. To make a meaningful difference for sickle cell patients across the country, the Red Cross needs the support of new and existing blood donors who are black to give blood. It also needs the support of organizations and businesses within the black community to host blood drives that will provide convenient locations for friends and family to donate blood.
At a time when health information has never been more critical, the Red Cross is screening all blood, platelet, and plasma donations from self-identified African American donors for the sickle cell trait. This additional screening will provide black donors with an additional health insight and help the Red Cross identify compatible blood types more quickly to help patients with sickle cell disease who require trait-negative blood.
To learn how to donate blood, download the American Red Cross Blood Donor App, visit RedCrossBlood.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767), or enable the Blood Donor Skill on any Alexa Echo device to make an appointment or for more information.