"Do black people have 'special' blood? Are we being racist?" they asked. Not at all. Turns out black people are more likely to have a rare blood subgroup called Ro, for example, and that for blood transfusions you need to have well-matched blood groups, which would be more likely to come from someone from the same ethnic background as you.
It was social media manager Melissa Thermidor and her collaborator Stephen Bailey who put the GIF-heavy, but actually very informative, thread together – so we spoke to Thermidor about why targeting the Afro-Caribbean community explicitly is important now.
VICE: Why are you asking for black donors specifically?
Melissa Thermidor: Over 15,000 people in the UK are affected by sickle cell disease, of which predominately most of them are black. Only 1 percent of our existing donor base's blood actually comes from black donors, and we know that the Ro subtype is what's necessary to help those who receive regular transfusions. But we don't have enough donors. It's actually a critical situation. We've not been publicising it as much as we should do, but it's definitely something of importance, and it's time now that we educate and encourage people from the black community to step up and save lives.
Sickle cell as a whole is sort of looked over, if I'm honest. It's one of those illnesses that you can't see from just looking at someone. It doesn't have a visible disability. It's about raising the awareness of the disease as a whole as well.
Is sickle cell the only disease that predominantly affects black people in the UK?
It's the most predominant one that requires them to receive blood transfusions. There's thalassemia as well, but that typically tends to affect people from the Asian community.
Are people just not coming in to give enough blood, or is it to do with population figures? We only make up about 3 percent of the population in the UK.
There are several different theories, but predominantly they're just not coming out to donate blood. They are registering, but they're not booking appointments. They're scared of needles, there's a mistrust of the NHS as well. And the fact is, people continue to receive blood from people that are O – but probably [they need] the Ro subtype.
What was the initial response? Why were people calling you racist?
Because we were calling for black donors, and I think the majority of our donor base is predominantly white. It's not to say all white people are racist obviously, but for them, the message was a different positioning than what they were used to. We've not traditionally been known to call for black donors. But me personally, I'm a woman of colour. I work for the NHS. This is something quite personal to me as well. And I just think it's important to integrate that messaging. All of our messaging should be multicultural.
Are there any other blood groups that you guys are in need of?
O negative. We always need O negative, because that can be given to anyone at any time. So in the event that we don't have the Ro subtype, or in the event that someone's in an emergency – like, a mum has lost a lot of blood in childbirth – they can be given it. Or if we are treating someone in an emergency and we don't have time to find out what their blood type is, they can be given O negative.
Do you think the black community could do a bit more to raise awareness, at places like the church, to get people to sign up and go and give blood?
Yeah, definitely. I think there is that bit of education. I think, once they've done it, they realise it's not scary. It's just a little prick for half a second. We're really pushing now to get the message out there.
You're definitely making it fun – I was laughing yesterday morning.
I mean, traditionally the NHS is quite conservative in nature as a brand overall, and social media needs to be approached quite differently. At the end of the day, you are talking to people quite similar to you, so why not approach the messaging in the same way.
I knew it had to be a black person running the account.
[Laughs] At least you knew. I think some people were like, 'Hmm, this is offensive, this is not from a black person.' I was like, 'Listen, I'm telling you, last time I checked, I am.'
How does social media play a role in bringing awareness to blood donation?
You can't avoid it. It's become one of those things – no matter how hard you try, it sort of interjects itself into your life at one point or another. It's just the place to be if you want to get the message out there to a younger audience. And the fact is, they are the future generation of blood donors, so you've got to get the message across and out to them, because they are likely to be the ones to help drive that awareness for you. It makes sense.