FORT KENT, Maine — Maine’s Red Cross is seeking more racially diverse donors to be among the 3 percent of the state’s population that gives blood regularly.
Most people are aware of the four main blood types of A, B, O and AB, but it’s the antigens — the substance that stimulates the body to build up immunity to disease — that determine the specific blood type and are needed to treat diseases that require blood transfusions.
Genetically inherited medical conditions such as sickle cell disease and thalassemia affect specific populations, and treatment can include frequent blood transfusions.
Although fewer than 500 people in Maine have sickle cell, that number is likely to grow as asylum seekers, mostly from African countries, continue to move to the whitest state in the union. Portland in particular attracted more than 1,000 asylum seekers last year, which was more than double the year before.
“The country is becoming more and more diverse, and we need to have a blood supply that’s diverse,” said Thomas Hinman, market manager for Northern New England Blood Services of American Red Cross.
A patient who receives a blood transfusion of a type that is not a close match may form antibodies against the mismatched antigens. To help avoid transfusion-related complications, a patient is more likely to find the most compatible blood match from a donor of the same race or similar ethnicity, according to the American Red Cross.
There are more than 600 known antigens, some of which are unique to specific racial and ethnic groups such as African Americans or other people of African descent who have rare blood types like U negative and Duffy negative, according to redcrossblood.org.
The majority of people with sickle cell disease are of African descent. It is also more commonly found in people of Hispanic, Indian, Asian or Middle Eastern ancestry.
Patients can receive up to 100 blood transfusions each year, and their health outcomes are significantly improved when that blood comes from a person of the same race, according to the Red Cross.
Of the more than 1.3 million people living in Maine, 1.8 percent were Black or African American in July 2021, the most recent year for which census information was available. The number is slightly smaller in Aroostook County, with 1.2 percent of its 66,859 residents identifying as Black or African American.
The need for racially diverse blood donations isn’t just an issue in Maine. Across the country, African Americans make up 13 percent of the population but less than 3 percent of blood donors, according to the Red Cross.
Hinman said people of all races who do not donate blood may be overlooking an individual benefit they gain from the process.
Before blood is drawn, donors first undergo a short medical screening that includes answering questions about their health. They also have their blood pressure, iron levels, pulse and temperature examined.
Hinman said he knows of people who have identified health issues through the Red Cross screenings.
“It is like getting a free mini-physical,” he said.
In Aroostook County, Brian Bouley, the only Red Cross employee north of Bangor, organizes blood drives that take place the third week of every other month, or six times per year. The drives are held on Tuesdays in Presque Isle, Wednesdays in Fort Kent, Thursdays in Caribou and Fridays in Houlton.
Bouley donated last week at a drive in Fort Kent.
“When I get out of bed in the morning, I feel I’m making a difference. That’s a lot better than just punching a clock in my opinion,” he said about his job.
For information about donating blood in Maine or organizing a blood drive visit redcrossblood.org.