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South Africa needs more bone marrow donors of all races

One of South Africa’s foremost medical academics and a specialist in the field of paediatric haematology and oncology appeals to the public to register with the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) as donors to help ensure that children who have blood disorders have a better chance of finding matching bone marrow stem cells, which could save their young lives.

“The reality is that at present, donors on the South African Bone Marrow Registry do not reflect the demographics of our country, which means that we urgently need more people of all race groups to sign up as donors so when a patient with a blood disorder requires bone marrow stem cells for treatment, there is a greater likelihood that they can be helped in time,” says paediatric haemato-oncologist Dr Monica Vaithilingum, who practises at Netcare Parklands Hospital in Durban.

She is also a director on the board of the South African Bone Marrow Registry.

According to her, leukemia is one of the more common forms of childhood cancer. “It is never easy for a family to come to terms with the fact that their child has been diagnosed with such a serious illness, however there is always hope. Some 85% of the child patients we see with acute leukemia have a positive prognosis.

“The majority of patients can be cured with chemotherapy but for those who require a stem cell transplant, the need is usually dire because they are either relapsed or have poorer prognostic markers.”
Registering with the South African Bone Marrow Registry is simple and free of charge to the donor. “The SABMR has an online application process; donors are screened and successful applicants are invited to complete an application form. If they meet the required criteria, a buccal swab sample, which is a swab of cells taken from the inner cheek of the applicant, is obtained from the donor for the all-important HLA tissue typing. These records are then added to our registry’s database, as well as the global database,” she explains.

“When a patient, particularly a child, requires a bone marrow stem cell transplant, we look for the closest possible match on the registry.”

According to the SABMR, ‘tissue-types’ are inherited characteristics, used in matching donors and patients. The likelihood of finding a suitable donor will, therefore, be considerably greater within the same ethnic background.

Warning signs of childhood cancer

Vaithilingum advises parents and healthcare practitioners to be aware that the following signs should not be ignored, as they may be signs of cancer in children.

The acronym ‘SILUAN’, named after Saint Siluan2 – a Russian monk who prayed tirelessly for all humanity – is a helpful way of remembering the following:

• S – Seek medical attention early for persistent symptoms.

• I – The phonetic reminder for eye-related symptoms, including a white spot in the eye, the development of a squint or visual impairment, or bulging of the eyeball.

• L – Lump noticeable in the abdomen, pelvis, head, neck, limbs, testes or glands.

• U – Unexplained symptoms of prolonged fever for more than two weeks, weight loss, pallor, fatigue, easy bruising or bleeding.

• A – Aching bones, joints, back or bones unusually susceptible to breaking.

• N – Neurological signs, such as change or deterioration in walk, balance or speech, regression of developmental milestones, headache lasting more than a week and sometimes with vomiting, or enlargement of the head.

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