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28 March 2022

How can knowing a donor's ethnicity help treat patients?

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From April 2022 onwards we’ll be asking about your ethnicity to help match blood profiles to patients more effectively. This can help improve how quickly and efficiently patients from black and minority ethnic backgrounds (who may have rarer blood types) can be treated.

Tell me a bit about these blood disorders

Sure. There are a number of hereditary blood disorders such as Sickle Cell Disease and Thalassaemia which patients are treated by having frequent blood transfusions. The most common ones are Sickle Cell disease (which mostly affects people with African or Caribbean heritage), and Thalassaemia (which mostly affects people from South and South-East Asia).

Surely you don’t need any more information for a transfusion than blood type?

In theory, once the recipient's blood type is known, a transfusion of compatible blood can be given. However, in practice, donor blood may still be incompatible because it contains other antigens that are not routinely checked for but can still cause problems if the recipient's blood contains antibodies that target them.

Sorry – what’s an antigen?

Like eye colour and hair colour, people inherit certain 'characteristics' on their red blood cells, called 'antigens.' Since heritable traits tend to travel within ethnic groups, patients and donors from the same ethnic background are more likely to have similar red blood cell antigens.

However, antigens can cause the immune system to produce antibodies against them. This means that if you were given a transfusion including a type of antigen that your immune system didn’t recognise, it might create antibodies to fight it off. The more times mismatches happen, the more antibodies the immune system may produce. These antibodies can cause the patients to become ill during transfusions and can make transfusions less effective. Over time it can become very difficult to provide the right blood for life-saving or life-enhancing transfusions.

So donors are more likely to be able to help patients from the same ethnic background without incident or further harm?

Exactly that. But as we don’t currently collect ethnicity data, we don’t know who that would be. When we start collecting ethnicity data, we essentially get a head start as it speeds up the matching process.

What if I don’t want to tell you my ethnicity?

That's absolutely fine – it’s voluntary, same as giving blood.

Is this all you’re using my ethnicity data for, helping match blood profiles?

Yes. SNBTS will only share your data as allowed or required by law. If we have identified a problem with your donation that is important for your health, we may refer you to an appropriate health care provider, such as your GP. We will always try to speak to you and ask your permission to do this. For more information on our confidentiality policies, see our Data Protection Notice.

What are the categories, and how do I tell you my ethnicity?

The ethnicity groups are defined by Public Health Scotland (PHS). PHS provides health information, health intelligence, statistical services and advice that support the NHS in progressing quality improvement in health and care and facilitates robust planning and decision making.

Next time you go to give blood, you’ll see a space on your form for your ethnicity code and you’ll be handed a sheet with the codes on it. The codes range from 101 'White Scottish' to 701 'Do not wish to say.' Simply find the one which best matches, and write the three number code in the box.​​

  • Have you made an appointment to give blood recently? Find out where and when you can donate by using our session search or calling 0345 90 90 999, Monday to Friday 9am-5pm.

Current blood stock levels across Scotland Saturday 28 May

We aim to retain 6 days of stocks at any time in order to meet the requirements of patients in Scotland.

Learn more about blood types