'Ethnic Diversity' Blood Drive In Winooski Touches A Nerve
American Red Cross blood drives are a common occurrence, but an upcoming a blood drive aimed at ethnic minorities is upsetting to some, and providing a lesson in medical science for others.
Basic blood types – like A positive or O negative – are a familiar concept. And certain blood types are more common among some ethnic groups than others. But a flyer announcing an upcoming "ethnic diversity" blood drive has made some people wonder, how is blood "ethnic"?
Dr. Jorge Rios, the medical director of the American Red Cross Blood Services for this region, spoke with Vermont Edition Monday about the drive.
"As you know, we will inherit the blood types based on genetics, what you inherit from your father and your mother,” Rios said. “And sometimes, when these patients become sensitized to transfusions, at that point they need to be given blood of similar genetic ancestry."
Beyond the basic blood types, there are some 600 antigens in blood that have genetic markers that link to race and ethnicity. Dr. Rios said some patients have better outcomes when they receive transfusions with antigens that match their own. One example is called the "Duffy" blood antigen:
“I think the most common are the Duffy-A and Duffy-B. African Americans lack those antigens, so they get sensitized when they get those transfusions, sometimes. After they become sensitized, we need to provide what we call Duffy-A and Duffy-B Negative blood, and that will come from someone of the same race, an African American donor,” Rios said.
"Sometimes, when these patients become sensitized to transfusions, at that point they need to be given blood of similar genetic ancestry." - Dr. Jorge Rios, American Red Cross Blood Services regional medical director
That science is hard to convey in a simple blood drive announcement. But when a flyer started circulating for an "ethnic diversity" blood drive – with the word ethnic spelled wrong – it struck some people the wrong way.
One of those people was Kesha Ram, a state legislator who works for the city of Burlington.
"Making generalizations about people having different types of blood is not an OK road to go down,” Ram says.
Ram says the blood drive isn't the problem; it's the communication around it that hit a nerve for her.
"Making generalizations about people having different types of blood is not an OK road to go down." - Kesha Ram, state legislator and City of Burlington employee
“There are people who are still alive who were part of bad science, bad social experiments and a dark time when people were making scientific arguments for differences between us as humans,” she says. “And that instantly takes people back to that place who remember it."
Ram is referring to historic examples of blood supplies being racially segregated and the eugenics movement in Vermont in early 1900s.
The legislator describes herself as a multi-racial person and says she's motivated to give blood because of the science behind the need. But she wants the American Red Cross to improve its cultural sensitivity.
Dr. Rios from the American Red Cross says the urgency of providing a genetically diverse blood supply is his focus, and he doesn't have a problem with how the message is being communicated to ethnic minorities.
Updated 3:45 p.m. June 3, 2015 The American Red Cross says it has replaced the flyers in question for Saturday's blood drive. Mary Brant is a communications manager for the American Red Cross and tells VPR:
"In the spirit of recruiting donors for the upcoming blood drive in Winooski, a group of well-meaning volunteers created posters to raise awareness about the drive. The posters do not align with our organizational standards for donor recruitment materials and have since been removed from use."