Letter: Bone marrow donors needed
At any given moment, there is an average of 3,000 active searches for bone marrow donors. Bone marrow is used to treat patients with leukemia, lymphomas, immune deficiency disorders, some solid tumors such as breast and ovarian cancer, and multiple myeloma—which is twice as common among blacks as it is among whites. There are no alternatives to a bone marrow transplant for patients who need this treatment. The bone marrow registries have facilitated nearly 6,000 unrelated matches in the United States and abroad.
Transplant matches are much more complicated than simply having the same blood type. The match needs to come from a genetic level similar to the genes that determine hair and eye color. Because of the unique genetic factors required a sibling offers the best odds of finding a match. But only 30 percent of patients find a suitable match this way.
There are more than six million donors currently registered. More than half of these donors are white. White donors meet 75-80 percent of the needs for patients in that racial group. Only about 20 percent of the volunteer donors on the registry are from minority groups, while more than 40 percent of those awaiting transplants are minorities. Of the matches facilitated by the registry, fewer than 1,000 have been for minorities. The low number of minority donors is made worse by low retrieval and retention rates—locating and contacting matching donors—among minorities. While 90 percent of white matching donors can be retrieved, only 70 percent of minority matching donors can be found. Many Hispanic/Latino donors who register during drives have moved in less than three months after registering and don’t notify the registry of their new contact information.
In unrelated transplants a match is more likely to be found among donors of the same racial or ethnic group. This is particularly true for blacks, even among other blacks. Therefore, if the group of potential donors being searched is small, the likelihood of finding a match will be small.
The screening at the time of registration consists of a few questions and either a cheek swab or a few drops of blood. In most cases, the cost of these screenings, tissue tests and the marrow donation itself is covered by a patient’s family, a community group, a corporation or the group sponsoring the drive. Any money paid to cover costs is tax deductible. Some states require private insurance companies to cover donor screenings.
Only about 1 in 200 registered volunteers will actually match someone in need. Most donations can be made nearly as simply as making a blood donation. Only about 25 percent—1 of 800 potential donors—will need to undergo a surgical procedure to retrieve the bone marrow. Any healthy adult between the ages of 18-60 can register as a possible donor. Registrations and screenings can be arranged by contacting the bone marrow registry at BeTheMatch.org or by calling 800-627-7692. Any bone marrow that is harvested from a donor will replenish itself in 4-6 weeks.
Cancer doesn’t care what color your skin is. However, the color of your skin makes a huge difference in your odds of finding a matching donor. This has nothing to do with educational level, economic situation or racial discrimination; it is simply a choice that minorities make. By choosing not to volunteer for the registry and not updating contact information, there simply aren’t enough donors available to find a match and treat minority patients in need. The donor registry is in urgent need of donors who are Black, Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Latino and multiple race ancestry. Only the minority groups in need can solve this problem by volunteering to register and maintaining current contact information with the registry. If you want to be part of the solution, please register.