Blood transfusions can make a lifesaving difference for patients living with sickle cell disease.

That's why The American Red Cross has launched an initiative to increase the number of African-American blood donors to help patients with this very painful disease.

More than 100,000 people in the U.S. have sickle cell disease, said Rosie Taravella, regional CEO of The American Red Cross New Jersey. She said it is the most common inherited blood disorder and the majority of patients are of African descent. Even though the condition has been around for over 100 years, there are not many resources available other than blood transfusions.

The condition is predominant in both Black and Latino communities. It causes red blood cells to harden and become disk-shaped. She said it's a very painful disease. When hardened, the cells can get caught in the blood vessels, potentially leading to stroke and organ failure.

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In honor of Sickle Cell Awareness Month, The American Red Cross is launching a campaign to encourage Black and African American donors to consider giving blood.

Taravella said sickle cell patients may develop an immune response against blood from donors that is not closely matched to their own. Many individuals who are Black have distinct markers on their red blood cells that make their donations ideal.

More than half of the blood donors who are Black have blood that is free of C, E, and K antigens, making them the best match for those with sickle cell disease, she said.

Transfusions seem to be the only way to treat the disease. They provide healthy blood cells and they unblock blood vessels, making it easier for the bloodstream to function, plus they help deliver oxygen to the patients.

There are more than 100 blood drives scheduled throughout all 21 New Jersey counties until the end of the month. Interested donors can schedule an appointment at RedCrossBlood.org or by downloading the Blood Donor App or by calling 1-800-RED CROSS.

Taravella said all donors who come to a drive from now until September 30 will receive a limited-edition football-themed T-shirt, while supplies last as a "thank you."

"It is a unique opportunity for folks of Black and African-American descent to help folks they may not even know, but it could be members of their own family. We just encourage them to learn more about the process. It's very safe and they're helping a great deal of people by doing so," Taravella said.

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