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200549697-0011.jpg By DAVID ELLISON
Only one thing prevented Nneka Chris-Ukoko from donating blood that could be used to ease her 11-year-old son’s suffering from sickle cell anemia. Two years ago, Chris-Ukoko, a native of Nigeria, was told by a doctor that people from Africa didn’t qualify because of the prevalence of AIDS on the continent.

On Friday, the Houston resident learned that is no longer the case. “I will donate now because it’s really important,” she said. “When my son was transfused, it helped him a lot. It was like a transformation.” Since black people represent a small number of the people who donate blood in the Houston area, officials at the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center are hoping that hundreds of others like Chris-Ukoko will start giving the gift of life.

The center has teamed up with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to increase the number of black people who donate through education and outreach efforts. The two agencies hosted a blood drive in July. “It’s very unfortunate that there are not many African-Americans who go out and donate blood,” said Sharonda Wright, director of the local NAACP’s health advocacy program.

“When I was asked to do the blood drive, I said, ‘OK, this is going to be a piece of cake.’ … Once I started getting out there and asking others to donate, a lot of people were very hesitant.” Of the 92,121 people who have donated blood at Gulf Coast Regional from Jan. 1 through July 31, less than 8 percent were black, according to the blood center. Officials said there are a lot of reasons — from fear of needles to misinformation — why black people don’t donate blood as frequently. In Chris-Ukoko’s case, the information she received was outdated.

Courtney Johnson, the center’s spokeswoman, said now there are no restrictions on people who lived in Africa or traveled to the continent. She said people who visited an African area with a malaria epidemic cannot donate for a year. She said the blood center recently started the African-Americans Commit for Life campaign. But Johnson said the agency is trying to increase donations among all black people, not just African-Americans.

The campaign involves getting people to donate once a quarter, allowing the agency to contact people about their next appointment and to provide other information. Wright said many black people don’t want to give blood because they believe they will contract a disease during the process. That, she said, isn’t true. Blood center officials said some feel they haven’t been asked to donate, while others think it’s inconvenient. Johnson said the process takes less than an hour. Since only 5 percent of the overall population donates blood, the center is pushing to increase numbers among all groups, Johnson said.

“But for the African-American community, there are also some very specific areas that they can help out with that no other community can help with,” she said. “And that’s really helping individuals with sickle cell anemia.” Sickle cell anemia is an inherited blood disorder characterized primarily by chronic anemia and periodic episodes of pain. According to the American Sickle Cell Anemia Association, the disease is common among people whose ancestors come from sub-Saharan Africa, Saudi Arabia, Spanish-speaking regions, India and Mediterranean countries.

In the U.S., it affects about 72,000 people, most of whom have African ancestry. The disease is treated with medicines, blood transfusions and specific treatment for complications. Dr. Beth Hartwell, the center’s medical director, said sickle cell patients initially can use blood from other races. But the more they are transfused with red blood cells unlike their own, the more likely they will produce a protein and react against it, she said.

Sickle cell isn’t the only reason there’s an urgent need for blood, officials said. Blood also helps trauma victims and patients who have illnesses like cancer, leukemia and kidney disease. Donors also benefit because the screening provides them with information about such things as high blood pressure or cholesterol.
Source: Houston Chronicle

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