MILWAUKEE — Juneteenth is not only a day that symbolizes and celebrates freedom for African Americans, but it's also a day that brings awareness to a disease that significantly impacts black families and other people of color.
"Sickle cell disease is one of those diseases that primarily affects African-Americans," said Elodie Ontala, a patient advocacy liaison for Versiti.
Children inherit the disease from parents who both have the gene. It blocks blood flow to organs and can often be fatal, causing patients with sickle cell to be in constant need of blood transfusions.
"For a sickle cell patient that blood treatment can happen every four weeks, every five to six weeks depending on the severity of the disease," said Ontala.
That’s why Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin made it its mission this Juneteenth to raise awareness about the disease and encourage those in the Black and Hispanic community to donate blood. And find out if they have the rare RO blood type, blood that could be used to help those suffering from sickle cell disease.
"The best way to find out if you have an RO blood type is by donating. That closely matched blood will provide a better life, better health, better wellbeing for someone living with sickle cell," said Michelle Waite, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for Versiti.
According to Versiti: 44% of African Americans have the rare RO blood type, compared to 17% of Hispanic Americans. And out of all of Versiti’s donors, only 4% have RO blood.
"Having blood from the same ethnic group that’s closely matched to you prevents complications and it allows you to have your treatment and live a better life," said Ontala.
Ontala was diagnosed with sickle cell disease when she was born and says finding out if you have the rare RO blood type is critical.
Ontala also says a person with sickle cell disease needs about 20 donors alone to support their need for frequent blood transfusions. But right now, Versiti says they don’t have enough of those donors to keep up with demand.
"We need more, we need more. Knowing that 44% of African-Americans have that blood type means we're not even at having a third of a population of donors," said Ontala.
This is why she’s now encouraging everyone and anyone to come out and donate blood or even learn more about sickle cell disease on Juneteenth, and you never know. You could save a life.