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Why does South Africa need a more diverse blood stem cell donor register? And, what can you do to help?

Baby Rayaan is only four months old and was diagnosed with life-threatening Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) when he was just eight weeks old. He desperately needs a blood stem cell transplant from an unrelated donor which is his best chance of surviving this rare form of blood cancer.

Currently, 7% of all new cases of cancer diagnosed in South Africa are blood cancer-related. That number does not consider the cases that are never diagnosed, largely due to a lack of knowledge and access to adequate healthcare.

Patients who end up needing to find an unrelated matching donor, often find that their second chance at life is hampered by the lack of diversity on the global registry. This is why more ethnically diverse donors are needed: Black, Coloured, Indian and Asian people. Genetics plays a key role when it comes to blood stem cell donation because a patient’s genetic match is most likely going to come from someone from the same ethnic group.

How does blood stem cell donation work?

A blood stem cell is a cell that makes the blood inside your body. The stem cells replenish so they are never lost. When a cancer patient receives blood stem cells they receive healthy blood stem cells that “delete” cancer. 

It is important to dispel the myths about how blood stem cells are collected from a donor and to clarify that it does not involve drilling into bones or placing a donor under anaesthetic. It’s a non-surgical and non-invasive procedure that takes place within a hospital, it usually takes about 4-5 hours. DKMS Africa only uses the peripheral blood stem cell collection method. This involves a needle in one arm that will draw up a donor’s blood into a machine where the stem cells are separated from the blood, collected and the donor’s blood is returned to their body through a needle in the other arm. Once the collection is done, they go home – with no overnight hospital stay.

The doctors are then able to transfer the donor’s healthy stem cells to the patient where the stem cells will regenerate and start to produce new cells. In some cases, the new blood cells will also attack and destroy any cancer cells that survived the initial treatment.

Why should you care?

There is a hesitancy toward blood stem cell donation in people of African origin, where cultural or religious barriers make many skeptical about donating. This hesitation is accompanied by an array of myths and stigma. This all needs to be confronted and debunked because cancer holds no racial bias, class, age, or gender preferences. And, according to various global studies, patients of African descent have a less than 20% chance of finding a match, compared to patients of European descent who have a 75% chance.

What can you do to help?

The donor registration process is easy and takes less than five minutes. After registering online, a swab kit will be couriered to you free of charge, and once that swab kit has been collected, the sample is sent for testing, a process that takes 6 to 8 weeks. Once tested, your information is entered into the registry, you receive a confirmation email, and then wait for that potential call that you’re a match.

This life-saving step can offer hope to patients, such as Baby Rayaan and their families.

Join me live on my IG on the 21st of April at 7pm and join the fight against blood cancer!

To register or find out more visit https://bit.ly/3EcXtuW