Every year hundreds of South Africans with blood diseases like leukaemia need a bone-marrow transplant, but their chances of finding a suitable donor outside their families are 1 in 100 000.
According to the South African Bone Marrow Registry, that number may be even higher for people of colour, due to the lack of ethnic diversity in bone-marrow donors across the globe, particularly for coloured South African patients, whose genetics are, at the same time, vastly varied and unique to the region.
Bone marrow is the tissue in the body where red blood cells, white blood cells, and blood platelets are produced.
A transplant replaces the patient’s diseased bone marrow, destroyed by chemotherapy and radiation, with healthy bone-marrow stem cells.
To donate bone marrow, your white blood cells, just like your red blood cells when donating blood, must be a match for the patient.
SarahBelle Selig, from the South African Bone Marrow Registry, says only some 30% of registered donors worldwide are people of colour, and that number is even lower on the South African registry, where only about 30% of the approximately 74 000 registered donors are coloured, black, or Asian.
Farnaaz Bedford, a harvest coordinator for the registry, says it’s important to have people of colour, especially mixed-race people, on the registry because their DNA is both complex and diluted.
“So, if we don’t have, or have fewer people of colour on our database, then we won’t have a match for a patient who is coloured and in desperate need of a transplant, and it minimises the chance of survival.”
There are many misconceptions about donating bone marrow, including that it is painful and involves drilling into the bones, but Ms Selig says that for most donors, the bone-marrow stem cells are donated through a process called peripheral blood stem cell donation.
First, the donor is given injections of Neupogen, a synthetic form of a natural-occurring protein in the body that stimulates the production of extra bone marrow stem cells that are released into the bloodstream. Then, the donor sits on a bed for about six hours, while their blood is collected and cycled through a cell-separating machine that collects the extra stem cells.
Ms Selig says it’s a virtually painless process which requires no anaesthesia, and no bones being drilled into.
Tania Bester, 32, of Silvertown, became a donor at the beginning of the year. She was already a blood donor.
“I signed up through the South African Bone Marrow Registry and filled in an application form, and they said go to the nearest blood-donor clinic.
“I did a buccal swab inside my mouth and they sent it off for testing to see if I will be compatible with anybody, then emailed back to say I’m officially part of the registry and will have to wait until there’s I’m a match for someone.”
Ms Bester says it feels good helping others and she hopes she’ll get the same help if she needs it.
Tasneem Omar, 34, of Silvertown, became a donor in March.
“It was an effortless procedure with no pain. The myths need to be eradicated; people need to be enlightened.
“There are so few donors in South Africa, and I wonder should this happen to me I might not have a match or if this happens to my family will they have a match?”
Visit www.sabmr.co.za, call 021 447 8638, or email donors@ sabmr.co.za for more information.