By Willemien Jansen (Health Systems Trust Copy and Content Editor)
Every year thousands of South Africans with blood cancers or immune disorders find themselves in need of a bone marrow transplant.
Most people don't find bone marrow matches within their own family and rely on a donation from a stranger who exactly matches their type of bone marrow tissue. Unfortunately, the odds of finding a match is just 1 in 100 000, and this is why signing up to become a bone marrow donor is so important. People of colour represent only 30% of current donors, and since donors are usually found within one's own ethnic group, this presents a huge problem for many South Africans who can't find a match. Having more donors will improve the odds of surviving a blood cancer or immune disorder where a bone marrow transplant is necessary.
What is a bone marrow transplant?
Red blood cells, white blood cells and blood platelets are produced in the bone marrow tissue. White blood cells fight infection, red blood cells carry oxygen and blood platelets prevent bleeding. Bone marrow doesn't produce healthy blood cells in those suffering from blood cancers and certain immune disorders, and the only way to fix this is by undergoing a bone marrow transplant. The procedure is fairly simple and similar to a blood transfusion. The unhealthy bone marrow is replaced with healthy bone marrow stem cells so that the body can start producing healthy blood. Sixty percent of bone marrow transplants successfully cure the recipient.
How do I become a bone marrow donor?
Getting registered as a potential donor is a very easy process and does not require a person to undergo any kind of procedure or pay any money. To be added to the register you can complete the online form either on the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) or the DKMS websites. You have to be between the ages of 16 and 45 to donate. South Africa became the second country in the world to allow people aged 16 to become donors. When completing the form, you will be asked a few questions to make sure that you would be healthy enough to donate. You will then receive a cheek swab by courier that you should send back to the provider. All this is paid for by the provider. As easy as that, you will be added to the register. You will not be required to do anything else until you are matched with someone.
What happens if I am a match?
The organisation you registered with will contact you if you are a match to anyone who needs a transplant. They will walk you through the process and support you every step of the way. They will also cover all the costs of the donation. Over 90% of donations are done through peripheral stem cell collection, where an IV-line is run through the arm, much like donating blood. DKMS explains that the blood passes through a small tube into a machine that collects the blood stem cells, and then returns the rest of the blood to the body. The collection takes a few hours and the person can usually go home when it is done.
What if I can't register as a donor?
There are certain criteria that might exclude some people from becoming donors based on their overall health. If for some reason you cannot register to become a donor, there are other ways to get involved and spread awareness. Registering people on the donor lists is an expensive process and so both SABMR and DKMS accept donations. If you are between the ages of 16 and 35, you can sign up to become an SABMR volunteer.
Registering to become a stem cell donor is a free and easy process. Sign up today to potentially save a life!
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