There is a dire need for 'donors of colour' in the fight against blood disorders

  • South Africa has a shortage of racially diverse bone marrow donors for blood disorder sufferers
  • Two hikers are attempting to scale the country's highest peak to raise awareness
  • Blood disorders have increased over the last decade

Two hikers are going to great heights to increase awareness of blood disorders, and the urgent need for bone marrow donors in South Africa.

In a symbolic hike up the country's highest peak in the Drakensberg range, adventurer and bone marrow donor Clayton Coetzee and expert mountaineer and author Gavin Raubenheimer will be tackling Mafadi from 7 to 9 September in honour of those who have helped save the lives of countless people suffering from blood disorders. 

“Bone marrow donation is close to my heart as one of my dearest friends got sick with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) several years ago," says Coetzee. "It’s then when I heard about the SA Bone Marrow Registry and the life-saving work that they do, and I decided to sign up as a donor."

READ | Could smoking lead to this blood disorder? 

Increase in cases

Blood cancer is one of the most common of these disorders and affects children the most, while other blood disorders include non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

Unfortunately, according to the Search Coordinator for the SA Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) Alicia Venter, these diseases have increased in the last decade – 45% in NHL cases and 26% in leukaemia cases.

"While recommended, prevention efforts, such as lifestyle changes, tend to be less effective for hematologic malignancies than for other cancers, which makes a blood stem cell transplant a patient’s only hope for survival," says Venter.

In order to be a suitable bone marrow donor, your human leukocyte antigen (HLA) needs to match someone in need. HLAs are genes in a human's DNA that help regulate immunity and affect whether or not a recipient's body will reject a transplant.

READ MORE | Bone marrow transplants less risky now 

Need more non-white donors

Finding a match, however, isn't as easy as swiping on a dating app and SAMBR has a serious lack of diversity in the donor database. Currently, there are only about 74 000 local donors on the South African Bone Marrow Registry. 

“In South Africa, there is a dire need for donors of colour," explains Venter.

"When it comes to matching HLA types, a patient’s ethnicity plays an important role as HLA markers are inherited. Some ethnic groups have more complex tissue types than others, therefore finding a match is most likely to come from someone of the same ethnic group."

'As easy as giving blood'

The hike is supposed to be symbolic of the uphill battle that faces those suffering from blood disorders, including finding a suitable donor to increase their chances of survival. Besides the gruelling experience, SAMBR will also be doing a cheek swab drive at the same time in Agulhas, Western Cape, and Musina, Limpopo, to help boost donor registrations. 

According to Coetzee, it's easy to be registered as a donor – all it takes is a cheek swab. If you do match with someone, it's "almost as easy as giving blood".

If a match is found, a donor will undergo a full medical exam to look for any exclusionary factors like obesity, HIV status, other chronic conditions and viral infections. Once cleared, the donor goes on a five-day treatment of injections to increase the number of stem cells in the bloodstream.

On the fifth day, the donor will be admitted to a hospital and connect to a cell separator machine, where the bone marrow donation would be made. The collected samples then has 72 hours to be transplanted to the receiving patient.

In South Africa, doctors will seldom collect bone marrow straight from the source. Possible side effects to receiving the injections may include headache, bone pain and flu-like symptoms.

“I want people to know that blood diseases can affect anyone, regardless of ethnicity or gender. Extending beyond our boundaries or comfort zones – like climbing Mafadi – can be hard, but imagine the indelible difference the act of becoming a donor can have on someone else’s life and their loved ones,” says Coetzee.

You can follow the hikers' journey on SAMBR's Facebook page. 

If you are between the ages of 18 and 45 and want to become a donor, contact the SABMR on 021 447 8638 or email: donors@sabmr.co.za. For more info and how to donate, visit their website. 

READ MORE | Leukaemia survivor stories

Image credit: Pixabay

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