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How community pharmacy can help Black sickle cell patients

This Black History Month, Nonyelum Anigbo discusses the prevalence of sickle cell disease among Black patients, and the role of community pharmacy in supporting them

Sickle cell disease affects the haemoglobin of red blood cells, causing them to become hard, sticky and form a ‘C’ sickle-like shape. This results in the cells dying very quickly, leaving sickle cell disease patients in a constant shortage of red blood cells, known as sickle cell anaemia.

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The misshapen red blood cells can stick together and form blockages in smaller blood vessels, causing patients to experience severe pain crises, and putting them at risk of fatal health events such as stroke.

For patients with sickle cell disease, life can be extremely painful and exhausting. Although there is no cure, there are measures that can be taken to manage patient symptoms. Blood transfusions are used as a common therapy, helping reduce patient symptoms and control the occurrence of pain crises they experience.


Ethnically matched blood donations


The medical community has long accepted that ethnically matched blood donations tend to be the most effective for treatment of sickle cell disease.

According to the NHS blood and transplant services, 90% of sickle cell patients come from a Black African heritage; although it is also found in people from Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds.

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Black heritage donors are also 10 times more likely to possess the Ro blood type required to treat sickle cell patients, with 55% of Black people in the UK having the Ro blood type. This is especially significant when compared to only 2% of the general population who possess the Ro blood type.

So far, campaigns to get more Black people to donate blood have seemingly had a significant impact, as the donor register for those of black heritage reached an all-time high of 20,000 in April of this year.

However, this June, the NHS Blood Donation services put out a call for more regular donors of Black heritage. They stated that at least 12,000 more donors would need to join their registry to help meet the growing demand for ethnically matched blood for sickle cell patients that require these life-saving transfusions.


Public fear around blood donations


Nowadays, signing up to donate blood can be done on a smartphone browser, yet there is still some hesitancy from the general public. 

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The Red Cross organisation has listed a few common concerns among the public around donating blood:

  • A fear of needles
  • Being unsure of eligibility
  • Being unsure about the safety of donating blood
  • A fear of negative side effects, such as fainting
  • Worrying about not having the required blood type

Although these misconceptions have been debunked by blood donation organisations and healthcare professionals, these fears remain among the general public.


“Give Blood, Spread Love” campaign


In an effort to spread awareness and tackle this problem, throughout Black History Month, the British Pharmaceutical Students' Association (BPSA) is encouraging eligible pharmacy students and trainees to donate blood.

The BPSA executive team have already been donating blood and have started a social media campaign, encouraging members to sign up to donate blood as part of the Sickle Cell Society’s “Give Blood, Spread Love” campaign.

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Additionally, as a member organisation of the International Pharmaceutical Students' Federation (IPSF), the BPSA is participating in the "Vampire Cup" – a longstanding IPSF competition that challenges its members to compete to see which member organisation can donate the most blood.

Hopefully, these efforts made within the pharmacy student and trainee community should make way to combat donation stigma and hesitancy among young people.


The role of community pharmacy


The question remains: how can we reach wider communities, particularly communities where blood donations levels are insufficient, like Black African communities? This is where community pharmacists and the wider pharmacy profession can get involved.

Community pharmacies are best placed to deliver this campaign to the general public as they sit at the heart of their local communities. It would be truly impactful if pharmacies, particularly community pharmacies based in areas with larger Black populations, would encourage their patrons to donate blood.

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The NHS provides free resources to members of the public and hospital staff, including printed leaflets and informational flyers, which could be displayed and distributed in community pharmacies.

Displaying posters and materials about blood donation can naturally lead to having more conversations with patrons about sickle cell and the need for more blood donors.

Creating opportunities to discuss the topic of donation can also lead patrons to express their concerns about donating blood directly, giving pharmacists the opportunity to help address these concerns.

The wider pharmacy community should strive to become educated on conditions like sickle cell disease and the process of blood donation. If eligible, pharmacists should also be donating when they can and sharing examples themselves doing so to inspire others across the profession and in their communities. 

It’s a case of delivering the message directly to the communities that need to hear it the most, while making sure to “practice what you preach”.

Nonyelum Anigbo is the president of the BPSA

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