Sunflower Fund calls for donors

Survivor and ambassador for the Sunflower Fund Jean Smyth, CEO of the Sunflower Fund Alana James and Sunflower Fund ambassador Deon Ding.

A South African is diagnosed with a blood disorder every five minutes, according to the Global Cancer Observatory, and while the number of patients is constantly rising, there are only under 77 000 registered stem-cell donors in the country.

In light of this, and to mark the end of the National Bone Marrow Stem Cell Donation and Leukaemia Awareness Month, which is observed from August 15 to October 15, the Sunflower Fund is urging South Africans to support its flagship campaign, Sunflower Day.

The Sunflower Fund is a donor-recruitment centre and stem-cell registry for Africa and is part of a global network, creating awareness about blood diseases and stem-cell donation, recruiting blood stem-cell donors and maintaining a registry of committed donors. It also pays for the cost of the tissue-type testing.

Alana James, CEO of The Sunflower Fund, says Sunflower Day, which is on Friday November 13 this year in light of Covid-19, has become a beacon of hope to the many who suffer from blood disorders because proceeds from the Tube of Hope (TOPE) sales help The Sunflower Fund to continue its work, recruiting donors and assisting patients who need financial support.

The topes went on sale from the beginning of October.

However, the statistics around blood disorders versus the number of donors in the country is shocking, says Ms James. “To further complicate matters, a patient’s best chance of finding a matching donor is from someone within the same ethnic or cultural group as them.”

Unfortunately, she says patients of colour are at a disadvantage due to the lack of black, coloured and Indian population groups in the global donor database.

“One such example is 6-year-old Azile Ngubane, who started experiencing joint pain and weight loss, which after a series of tests resulted in a diagnosis of lymphoblastic leukaemia. Azile, has no siblings and is currently still desperately in search of a match to save her life.”

Ms James points out that finding a matching donor comes down to genetics.

“There is a common misconception that a genetic match can only exist within the family; however, there is only a 25% chance that a sibling could be a match. The remaining 75% chance is based on finding an unrelated matching donor and there is only a 1:100 000 chance of a patient finding a match, making the need for donors crucial.”

Blood disorders are complex and range from more frequently heard of blood cancers like leukaemia to aplastic anaemia, sickle cell disease, bone marrow failure, red, white and autoimmune blood cell illness, explains Ms James. “They do not discriminate against certain cultures or ethnicities, genders or societal status, and are not all hereditary; so anyone can be diagnosed at any age.”

Many misapprehensions around blood disorders and stem-cell donations hamper the organisation’s efforts to secure the much-needed donors, says Ms James.

“There tends to be confusion between blood donation, organ donation and stem cell donation – these are completely different databases. There are also many cultural and religious uncertainties that people think are cause for them not to register.”

However, in order to assist as many patients diagnosed with leukaemia and other blood disorders as possible with finding their life-saving match, Ms James calls on more South Africans to become donors and buy topes.

Becoming a donor, she says, is not as painful as people think and it doesn’t cost anything. Registering involves three swabs of DNA collected from the inside of your mouth and cheeks and can be done from the comfort of your home.

When you are a match for a patient, donating is non-invasive, and doesn’t require an operation, anaesthetic or incisions. You will only donate stem cells once in your life when you are a match for a patient.

The topes sell for R30 at Pick * Pay stores nationwide, selected independent pharmacies and online at Zando.

The Sunflower Fund is also urging all supporters to consider planning a mini-event or fund-raiser to commemorate Sunflower Day.

If you are between the ages of 18 and 55, with a body mass index (BMI) of less than 40, you could be eligible to become a stem-cell donor.

For more information or to register, visit www.sunflowerfund.org or call 0800 12 10 82.