Sickle cell disease and blood donation

Sickle cell disease is the most common inherited disease in Canada. About 6,000 people across the country are currently living with sickle cell disease and that number is projected to grow in the coming years.  

Donors of blood, plasma, platelets and stem cells all play a vital role in supporting the treatment of people with sickle cell disease. Many with this condition, including children, depend on donated blood and blood components to treat their symptoms, or even to help save their lives.  

While any donor can help support people living with sickle cell disease, blood components from donors whose ancestry is similar to the recipient’s may lead to the best outcomes.   



6,000+ people in Canada are living with sickle cell disease

Last year, more than 15,000 units of blood were transfused to people in Canada with sickle cell disease

On average, people living with sickle cell disease who need regular red blood cell exchanges require 8 units of blood every month.

Frequently asked questions

How can I become a blood donor?

If you’re thinking about donating for the first time, here are a few simple steps you can take:  

  1. Find out if you’re eligible. Take the quiz and learn more about the ABCs of eligibility.  
  2. Find a donor centre near you.  
  3. Book an appointment. Booking in advance helps our clinic run smoothly and also helps us ensure your first donation experience is a good one.  
  4. Learn more about the blood donation process.  

Still have questions? Sign up for more information by email or call to speak with one of our trained healthcare professionals at 1 888 2 DONATE (1-888-236-6283). 

Why do people with sickle cell disease need donors of the same or similar ethnic ancestry?

Those living with sickle cell disease bring the importance of an ethnically diverse blood supply sharply into focus. 

People with sickle cell disease may need regular red blood cell transfusions, and the most compatible blood may come from donors of similar ethnic ancestry. Unlike other transfusion recipients, people living with sickle cell disease have a greater likelihood of experiencing side effects from transfusions. That is partly because of the high number of transfusions they receive over the course of their lives, and partly because of the disease itself. Providing the most compatible blood helps minimize these side effects.

With each transfusion, recipients are exposed to donors’ red blood cell markers, called antigens. If antigens are mismatched, the recipient’s immune system can form antibodies to the antigens that differ from their own. Compared with others who receive red blood cell transfusions, people with sickle cell disease are 10 times more likely to develop antibodies to donor antigens. Once these antibodies form, finding compatible blood for future transfusions becomes more difficult.

Because blood antigens are inherited, antigen-matched blood is more likely to be found in someone whose ancestry resembles that of the recipient.

Sickle cell disease is more frequent among those whose ancestors are from sub-Saharan Africa; Spanish-speaking regions in the Western Hemisphere (South America, the Caribbean, and Central America); Saudi Arabia; India; and Mediterranean countries such as Turkey, Greece and Italy. People whose ancestors are also from these regions have the greatest potential to help people with sickle cell disease, as donors.

How does Canadian Blood Services find the most compatible donors for people with sickle cell disease?

Canadian Blood Services has processes in place to identify matched blood from our large inventory of red blood cell units. These processes include, but are not limited to:

  • ongoing recruitment and retention of a large and increasingly diverse donor base 
  • partnerships with community organizations to help support the recruitment of donors from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds  
  • testing donors for the antigens commonly found in patients with sickle cell disease 
  • our rare blood program, which consists of a team of health care professionals who support hospitals by providing individualized patient assessments and by finding optimally matched blood units within our inventory

Can I donate blood if I have sickle cell trait?

Yes! People with sickle cell trait are eligible — and encouraged — to donate blood. If you have never donated blood, plasma or platelets before, we encourage you to call 1 800 2 DONATE (1-888-236-6283) to discuss your eligibility.

Is Canadian Blood Services currently meeting the needs of people with sickle cell disease who require blood components?

Yes. Canadian Blood Services continues to meet the transfusion needs of people with sickle cell disease through our existing donor base, and by importing products from other blood operators around the world. In 2022, we distributed more than 15,000 units of red blood cells for transfusion to people in Canada living with sickle cell disease and other inherited disorders such as thalassemia.

However, the increasing population of people living with sickle cell disease, along with the growing need for more precise matching of blood groups, are driving the need for more — and even more compatible — donors.

Can people who have travelled to malaria-endemic regions donate whole blood, plasma, or platelets?

If you have travelled to a malaria-endemic region where preventative medications are recommended, your waiting period to donate whole blood or platelets will depend on the length of your stay in certain regions. This is because the chance of having a new or previously unrecognized infection diminish over time.   

  • If your stay was less than one day, you may be able to donate depending on where you were.   
  • If your stay was less than six (6) months, you will need to wait three (3) months from the date you left a malaria-endemic region.   
  • If your stay was six (6) months or more, you will need to wait three (3) years.  

If your visit lasted less than 24 hours, please call us at 1 888 2 DONATE (1 888 236-6283) to discuss your eligibility.   

Learn more travel and/or living internationally and blood donation.
Learn more about malaria and blood donation.  

Can people who have had malaria donate whole blood, plasma, or platelets?

Unfortunately, at this time, there is no suitable, Health Canada-approved screening test available that can adequately screen blood donors for malaria. In the absence of an available test in Canada, we rely on thorough donor eligibility assessments based on possible exposure to the illness.

This means that if you have had malaria — even if you have fully recovered — you are not eligible to donate whole blood or platelets.

However, you may be able to donate plasma used to manufacture lifesaving medications. You may also be able to donate stem cells, organs and/or tissues.

Learn more about malaria and blood donation

Sickle cell stories: Real stories from people living with sickle cell disease