SA and UK teens can register as bone marrow stem cell donors

20 October 2020 - 07:30 By nonkululeko njilo
South Africa has made history becoming the second country in the world to allow teenagers aged 16 and 17 to become bone marrow stem cell donors.
South Africa has made history becoming the second country in the world to allow teenagers aged 16 and 17 to become bone marrow stem cell donors.
Image: 123RF/Sudok1

SA has become just the second country in the world to allow children aged 16 and 17 to become bone marrow stem cell donors.

This is according to the SA Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR), which said the government had given approval to sign up the teens as registered donors.

In the past, donors had to be 18 years or older.

This was made possible by recent changes in legislation and advances in stem cell donation which have allowed registries to reduce the age limit of donors. SA now joins the UK in this move.

Dr Charlotte Ingram, medical director of SABMR — the largest registry in the country — described the move as a landmark which would save many lives.

“In general, young people make better donors. Research shows that younger donors are associated with better survival rates for patients after a stem cell transplant. It’s a step towards further enhancing the registry towards a younger and more ethnically diverse pool for blood cancer patients and others in need of a bone-marrow transplant,” the SABMR said.

The registry said it would, however, involve parents of teenagers who opted to become donors, despite not being legally compelled to do so. This was to address concerns and questions they would have.

Ingram said donors between the ages of 18 and 25 accounted for only 6.8% of their registry but hoped that the figure would increase with increased awareness of bone marrow donation among young people.

“Studies tell us that Generation WE (aged 14-20) and Generation Z (21-25) are a lot more self-aware, socially responsible and globally minded than previous generations. They are more concerned about tackling social issues and want to roll up their sleeves and make a difference. Young people today are often drivers of social change movements and we look forward to engaging them,” she said.

She said there was no greater way to help another than to potentially save a life.

“So many lives are lost if there is a delay in finding a donor match. While we have 74,000 donors on our registry, we often discover that many older donors can no longer donate stem cells as they have developed hypertension, heart disease or diabetes.

“When this happens, we have to start the search process all over again, which prolongs the agonising wait for a patient, who doesn’t have time to waste. By opening up the donor pool to a younger audience, doctors and donors can choose the healthiest matches that substantially increase a patient’s chance of survival,” added Ingram.  

Those interested to become donors may apply online. They will be contacted to discuss the easiest way of dispatching and collecting swab kits. The only initial sample that is required is a cheek swab.

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