URGENT need for more bone marrow donors in SA

Awareness campaigns for Leukaemia and other bone marrow disorders aim to get more donors to volunteer.
Awareness campaigns for Leukaemia and other bone marrow disorders aim to get more donors to volunteer.

There is a serious need for more bone marrow stem cell transplant donors in SA, says The Sunflower Fund.

The organisation aims to give all South Africans diagnosed with leukaemia and other life-threatening blood disorders the chance of life, irrespective of their race and financial situation.


The biggest need is among black South Africans, says Chris Moir, Donor Recruitment Specialist with The Sunflower Fund. Currently, the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) donor profile is 71% White, 8% Asian; 6% Coloured and 5% Black.

Donor matches depend on tissue types – not blood types – and genetic characteristics are often more frequent in a specific race group. The chances of finding a match currently stand at one in 100 000.

Leukaemia, the common name for a variety of cancers that form in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow, affects especially young and older people, and is the most prevalent form of cancer in children in SA.

Read: Immune-system therapy may help leukaemia

One in 600 South African children will develop leukaemia and will need treatment, which may include a bone marrow transplant.

The good news though, is that if diagnosed early, 70 to 85% of children can be cured. In 1969 no child with leukaemia survived; but due to improved early detection and advances in treatment, this has vastly improved.

Yet there's still much more to be done, as SA also has a shortage of clinics to perform stem cell transplants. Dr Jackie Thomson, Director at Alberts Cellular Therapy (ACT) at the Netcare Pretoria East Hospital says that 2 000 procedures should be performed per year for the South African patient population, but only about 100 are actually carried out.

National Bandana Day

The Sunflower Fund is currently running its National Bandana Day campaign in conjunction with Pick n Pay stores.

“A bandana costs only R25 and the funds raised go towards paying for the test cost of potential donors to join the SABMR,” says Moir.

This blood test costs R2 000 per person to process, which is often sponsored in total by The Sunflower Fund. Donors’ contributions to these costs are obviously welcomed.

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Image: Bandana Day from The Sunflower Fund.

Moir says, “One of the biggest problems is the huge misconception around bone marrow stem cell transplants. People think we drill into bones, which is totally inaccurate, so there is a lot of stigma. We do a lot of awareness and education campaigns to help recruit donors and explain to them how simple it is to donate bone marrow stem cells in order to save a life.”

About bone marrow donation

Contrary to a very popular belief that donating bone marrow is painful and invasive, its actually easy!

Belinda Mountain, blogger at Making Mountains explains how to become a bone marrow donor.

South Africans are mostly either scared or ignorant about bone marrow donation. Here Belinda sets out the simple procedure:

1.    Call The Sunflower Fund toll-free number on 0800 12 10 82.
2.    They’ll make sure you meet the criteria, process your application and at this point you can also make a donation (it’s not compulsory). Why do they need donations? The tissue typing test is very expensive to do, so every little bit of cash you can donate will make a big difference.
3.    You’ll then be emailed a simple form to complete (it takes 2 minutes, promise).
4.    You then scan and email a copy of the completed form back to them, clutch the real form in your hand and head to your nearest donor centre (mine is at The Colony Centre in Craighall).
5.    Here they take two tiny test tubes of blood and that’s it, you’re registered.

Read: Cancer – prevention is better than cure

If the rare opportunity comes along that you are a match for someone, the procedure is also relatively simple and non-invasive. When people think of “bone marrow” transplants they probably think of operations and drilling and all kinds of scary sounding things (I know I did).

But it’s not like that. For a few days before the extraction, you’ll have a small series of injections which will stimulate your production of stem cells. These excess cells then enter your blood stream, where they are available to harvest.

You’ll then need to sit for between 4 and 6 hours (you can also break this up over 2 days) whilst your blood is filtered through a cell separator machine.  Your blood is spun inside the machine and your precious stem cells separated into a bag.

They’ll then return your blood to you via your other arm and that’s it, you’re done. For more information on donor exclusions visit Be the match.

Read More:

Young girl’s ‘cure’ signals new path against cancer
Gene mutations sign of childhood leukemia risk

Image: Open hand raised, Stop Leukemia sign painted from Shutterstock.

All credit for this article goes to Belinda Mountain.

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