The NHS needs platelets. Why is it only middle-aged white men who donate them?

    11 November 2016

    It pains me to say it, but thank God for middle-aged white men. Judging by what I have seen over the last 10 years as an ardent platelet donor at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, south London, older white men seem to almost single-handedly supply British hospitals with platelets. I would even go so far as to estimate that they make up a disproportionate 97 per cent of all donors.

    What even are platelets, I hear you ask in a quizzical tone. Don’t worry — I didn’t know either until I started giving them. Platelets are very small cells in the blood which help to stop or prevent bleeding. They are given to people who are unable to make enough platelets in their bone marrow — for example, patients with leukaemia or other cancers and patients who have lost blood after injury or major surgery.

    Tooting is a massively multicultural area and at St George’s Hospital there are many wonderfully devoted black and brown nurses and carers. But, when it comes to the donors, the overwhelming majority are white men over 40. And quite frankly, this irks me. I’m tired of being the only light brown face in a sea of white ones.

    It’s a problem for the patients too. For those who need regular transfusions, a donor of the same ethnic background can lead to a ‘better clinical outcome’. As Lynne Moulder, of NHS Blood and Transplant, explains: ‘There is a need for more donors of different ethnic backgrounds, especially those of black and Asian heritage, to come forward.’ (There is a campaign underway to encourage more donors, not just of platelets but of blood and organs too.)

    Other civic-minded black and brown donors surely exist, but why don’t I see them more often? Do our paths just never cross on the days we donate? Or should I confront the unpalatable truth that, when it comes to being philanthropic with their blood and platelets, people of colour need a collective kick up the derrière?

    Like all other donors, I have the usual variety of personal reasons for giving. I try to follow the African-American proverb that ‘service is the rent we pay for living.’ Moreover, my dad and uncle both had prostate cancer and my best friend lost his mum prematurely to bowel cancer. I used to give blood at college, but after several years was told I had very good veins and then, when tested, an exceptionally high platelet count, so decided to switch to giving platelets instead (since you can’t do both).

    So if I am an anomaly, to what can we ascribe the appalling paucity of people of colour who choose to give blood and platelets?

    Now I understand that, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, your fundamental bases have to be covered before you can begin to start flourishing as a human being. Hence, since the black and brown middle class in Britain is still nascent (unlike in the US), I do understand why middle-class people — more secure and affluent — can afford to give more back to society, whereas working-class people might be too busy trying to make ends meet to be charitable.

    It could be a cultural thing, too. I have one friend who, having read about the nefarious Tuskegee experiments conducted on African-American men in Alabama between 1932 and 1972, now believes all Western hospitals to be vicious instruments of Babylon. Perennially cynical of what injections might really contain, he sees all white medical treatment as a state-sponsored conspiracy to extirpate the black race. His is obviously an extreme (and risible) reaction, but is the well-documented history of black oppression at the hands of white institutions a legitimate factor in not wanting to donate?

    Truth to tell, I’m tired of making excuses for my fellow ethnics. Whatever the reason, we should all do our civic duty. We all now live as (ostensibly) equal players in this society, so we must all equally contribute to its betterment.

    Let’s start by getting some high-profile black and brown Britons as role models to promote blood and platelet giving. Why not get the new, Tooting-born London mayor Sadiq Khan down to St George’s, alongside Hollywood heartthrob Idris Elba and double Olympic champion Mo Farah?

    Giving blood and platelets helps sick people get better. And, God forbid, one day we might even need that help ourselves. To quote Kipling, albeit ironically, British people of colour really do need to pick up the white man’s burden and take the hefty weight off his shoulders. And, if you really can’t think of a better reason, how about doing it for the smorgasbord of free custard creams, Mini Cheddars and tea you get afterwards?

    How to donate platelets: