Red Cross sickle cell blood donation efforts win $25K FirstEnergy grant

Funds will help increase the number of Black, African American blood donors

Andrea Lobo, PhD avatar

by Andrea Lobo, PhD |

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The American Red Cross Central Appalachian Region received $25,000 from the FirstEnergy Foundation on behalf of efforts to support people with sickle cell disease (SCD) and increase the number of Black people who donate blood.

The American Red Cross Sickle Cell Initiative aims to improve the quality of life of people with SCD by addressing health inequalities in African American communities. The grant will contribute to the Central Appalachian Region of the American Red Cross to support patients in West Virginia, a region served by First Energy’s Mon Power electric distribution company.

“We’re proud to help the American Red Cross serve those without access to the treatment they need. The organization’s efforts align with our company’s commitment to strengthening low-income and underserved communities,” said Lorna Wisham, president of the FirstEnergy Foundation, in a press release.

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SCD is the most common genetic blood disorder in the U.S., affecting about 100,000 people, mostly those of African descent. People with SCD tend to have worse health outcomes than people with other diseases and have access to fewer health resources.

The disease is caused by mutations in the beta-globin (HBB) gene that contains instructions to make a component of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen through the bloodstream. In people with SCD, defective hemoglobin, called hemoglobin S, causes red blood cells to acquire a sickle-like shape.

Due to their irregular shape and excessive “stickiness,” these faulty red blood cells can easily block blood flow, triggering painful vaso-occlusive crises (VOCs).

Along with the medications available to treat SCD, regular blood transfusions are sometimes required to alleviate pain and severe symptoms. This requires that blood is supplied by closely matched blood donors, however, usually Black or African American people, and there is often a supply shortage because less than 3% of donors are Black or African American. This means the Red Cross is only able about half the time to provide the most compatible blood for people with SCD.

Roughly 13% of the U.S. population identifies as Black or African American.

“We are grateful for the generous grant that will help us address this health disparity,” said Erica Mani, CEO of Red Cross Regional. “The Red Cross’s goal is to triple the number of blood donors who are Black or African American by the end of 2025, as they have the greatest potential to supply a compatible blood unit for transfusion for people living with sickle cell disease.”

The FirstEnergy Foundation is funded by FirstEnergy Corp. It supports nonprofit health and human services organizations, educational organizations, cultural programs and institutions, and civic groups, in the areas served by its electric distribution companies.