Anyone who gives blood or becomes an organ donor makes a huge contribution to someone's life. But if you're from an ethnic minority, your role is even more crucial.
That's because you're more likely to have the rare blood or tissue type needed to save someone’s life.
Comedian Gina Yashere is actively involved in promoting donation within ethnic communities. "There are a lot of black and Asian people out there who desperately need help, and they can’t get it from anyone else but their own communities. It’s something we’ve all got to consider, because we're the only ones who can help each other,” she explains.
Gina is a proud donor herself. “Fortunately, I’ve not been directly affected by someone close to me needing a transplant, but I’ve donated blood.”
Why black or Asian donors are needed
The lack of minority donors is not an individual problem. It's a situation that affects whole communities. Body tissues have racially specific characteristics, which means that transfusions and transplants are far more likely to be successful when the donor and recipient are of a similar ethnic background. If you're black, your best tissue match will usually be black. If you're Asian and need a transplant, you’ll probably need an Asian donor.
About 11% of the UK population are from a black, Asian or other ethnic minority background, but there's such a shortage of minority donors that only 3.5% of people from these groups are signed up to the Organ Donor Register.
This means that if you're black or Asian, your chances of finding an unrelated matched donor are lower than if you were white.
It's clear that the greatest demand comes from the communities with the lowest donation rates and the hardest tissue types to match. So why is there such an acute shortage of donors?
A study by NHS Blood and Transplant showed that many ethnic minorities believe that donating blood and organs is “something that white people do”. This perception is contributing to a dangerous shortage of minority donors.
If you're black or Asian, playing a part could be as simple as giving blood, as Gina has. “I can’t see what the big problem is about giving blood. It takes no time and there’s no real pain. I think we all need to get the information into our communities and show people that it’s not a major problem. For that slight inconvenience of coming forward and giving some blood, you could be saving someone from dying. You can’t argue with that.”
Giving blood or donating bone marrow
The process of giving blood takes less than an hour, is virtually painless and is entirely safe. You'd be giving less than a pint, which could save the lives of accident victims, people with blood conditions such as sickle cell anaemia, or those having vital operations.
By choosing to become a bone marrow donor, you may be helping to cure leukaemia or sickle cell anaemia in children. Bone marrow is the soft, jelly-like tissue found in the hollow centres of certain bones. It's the home of ‘stem cells’, which are the building blocks of blood. Bone marrow donation involves removing stem cells from the hip bone using a needle and a syringe under general anaesthetic. You would stay in hospital overnight and leave the next day, normally only feeling a slight soreness, which usually passes after a few days.
You can also donate stem cells from circulating blood. For four days before the donation, a nurse will inject the donor with a drug that vastly increases the number of stem cells in the donor’s circulating blood. The donor is then connected to a cell separator machine, without the need for general anaesthetic. This machine collects the stem cells from the blood and returns the blood to the body through a vein in the other arm.
Perhaps the biggest need is for more people from minority communities to offer their organs after death. Often religious or spiritual beliefs play a part in the decision not to donate. Gina says: “I think there's a fear of not knowing what happens to you after your death within the black community. It’s not so much about apathy but there's a little bit of fear involved. Because most people don’t know what will happen to them after they die, they worry about donating parts of their body.”
Organ donation is an individual choice. Many people choose not to donate, thinking that organ donation may be incompatible with their religious beliefs. In fact, all the major religions in the UK support some form of organ donation as they view it as an act of life-saving charity. Within individual religions there are different views on the nature of transplants, but you can ask a religious official for specific advice.
NHS Blood and Transplant has information on different religious perspectives on donation. They also run campaigns to raise awareness of the need for organ donors, including campaigns aimed at black and south Asian communities.
You can help by creating a culture of donation. If you don’t give blood or join the NHS Organ Donor Register, consider it. If you do, that’s excellent, but try to encourage your friends and family to help, too.
People excluded from giving blood
NHS Blood and Transplant has rules about who can donate blood (PDF, 4.2Mb). Some of the rules are designed to lower the risk of infected blood being donated. That's to make sure blood transfusions are as safe as possible for the patients who receive them.
You cannot give blood if your partner (of any ethnic group) has been, or may have been, sexually active in parts of the world where HIV/AIDS is very common. That includes most countries in Africa, although there are exceptions.
You can still join the Organ Donor Register if you have not been able to donate blood.
You can contact NHS Blood and Transplant online to find out more about who can donate or you can call them on 0300 123 23 23.