HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month, and the American Red Cross is looking for people who can help ease the pain of people battling the disease.
Sickle cell disease is the number one inherited blood disorder in the U.S., affecting around 100,000 people, most of whom are of African descent.
Those with the disease have sickle-shaped red blood cells that block vessels leading to vital organs. It's painful and sometimes fatal, requiring frequent blood transfusions.
"When a patient is having a sickle cell episode, it is crucial for them to have the right type of blood," said Katie Niehoff, executive director of the American Red Cross in Coastal Virginia.
In this case, the right kind of blood often comes from Black blood donors who have specific antigens to help fight sickle cell.
The problem is, the number of African Americans who donate blood is low.
"[They only make up] about 4% of the blood donations that the Red Cross collects," said Niehoff.
For National Sickle Cell Awareness Month, which takes place over the month of September, the Red Cross is pushing a new initiative to find more Black blood donors.
Just three months into her job as executive director, Niehoff is doing what she can to make the right connections.
"To try to build relationships with different community organizations, faith-based organizations to try to get blood drives into communities that typically have not held them," she tells News 3.
The Red Cross has hosted several sickle cell-specific drives this month with two more remaining: One at The Mount Peninsula on September 27 in Yorktown and another at Shiloh Baptist Church in Norfolk on September 29.
For a full list of blood donation sites, click HERE.