The coronavirus may be what everyone is talking about, but other illnesses and chronic diseases continue to affect millions of South Africans

Bone Marrow Registries around the world report a decline in donor registrations since the COVID-19 outbreak.

The effects of the global pandemic have been far-reaching, affecting people’s employment, financial standing and our social presence. 

Related: 10 Myths about blood donation

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Dr Charlotte Ingram, Medical Director of the SA Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) – the largest registry in the country – says they too have seen a drop in local donor registrations since the start of the pandemic. 

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She attributes the decline to physical events that drive blood stem cell donor registrations having to be cancelled around the country and the extended lockdown orders prompting the public to stay indoors. 

“These measures are crucial in slowing the spread of the virus, but it has put a strain on the critical services that registries provide. Aside from a lag in donor recruitment, COVID-19 has also made it difficult to transport blood stem cells to patients in need. While specialised stem cell courier services are operational, the current travel restrictions, international flight availability and quarantine protocols have impacted critical delivery times.”

Stay safe while becoming a donor

In light of the pandemic, the SABMR will for the foreseeable future, recruit all donors online. 

“Our number one priority is to protect our donors, potential donors and patients whilst continuing to offer a second chance of life to those who need it. Patients with blood disorders, such as leukaemia and thalassemia around the world are still in urgent need of blood stem cell transplants. That doesn’t change. The fewer donors we have, the lesser the chance of finding a match. As it is, the chance of finding a successful match is approximately one in 100 000. 

Family isn’t always a match

“Only 30% of people are lucky enough to find donors in their family, while the remaining 70% must look elsewhere for a match. When local matches aren’t found, international registries are accessed, but even so, the odds of finding a match are slim, and in the event of an international match is found, the process is an expensive one.

“In SA, the registry is currently not reflective of our demographics and unfortunately worldwide only 27% of donors are of colour, which makes finding a match even more problematic,” she notes.

To drive donor registrations, the SABMR has stepped up their efforts by launching a massive online campaign, starting this July, to achieve 10 000 new volunteer donors before World Marrow Donor Day (WMDD), which is celebrated annually on 19 September. The SABMR’s target is to have 100 000 donors available for patients in need at any given time.

Over the next three months, hero donors will be sharing their stories on social media to inspire and help create awareness, while debunking myths around the procedure.

Related: My only chance of survival: a bone marrow donor

Bone marrow donors are people like you and me

Donating bone marrow saves lives. You would think lifesaving is the job of superheroes or extraordinary people, but people who donate bone marrow are ordinary everyday people, just like you.

Related: “Superhero” 4-year-old donates bone marrow to save his baby brothers

Sibongle’s Story

One such story is of Sibongile Jimlongo – a 25-year-old lawyer in training from Stellenbosch who had the desire to help a child who needed a bone marrow transplant. Before she went ahead with the procedure, it was important for her to get her parents and grandmother’s blessing. When she first shared the news with them, they were nervous, as it wasn’t something that anyone in their family ever considered and is uncommon in African custom.

After she explained that bone marrow is extracted via an intravenous line and that it is done safely, her family respected her wishes, and she was able to save a child’s life. To her, donating blood marrow was an honour and is something that she will treasure forever!

Aaron’s story

Another account is of Aaron Lipschitz, who at the age of 5, triumphed insurmountable odds. As an infant, he was diagnosed with a metabolic absorption disorder. The disorder made him unable to tolerate any food besides a specialised hypoallergenic formula which he received through an intravenous feeding tube. When he was three, after years of infections that baffled his doctors, Aaron was also diagnosed with Interleukin-12 Receptor Defect, a defect preventing his body from fighting minor infections.

After Aaron endured a third, almost fatal attack of Septicaemia, his doctors decided to undergo a bone marrow transplant. After a gruelling search for a donor, through the help of the SABMR, they found a match and the little boy underwent a successful bone marrow transplant. Through this life-saving act, Aaron can now live an active life, enjoying the simple pleasures, such as playing soccer and tennis with his friends, that so many of us take for granted.

Elmarie’s story

Elmarie Lahoud also shares the touching story of meeting her stem cell donor, Petronella Ballantyne. Lahoud – a mother and former school principal in Gauteng – was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL). The severity of her condition meant that a bone marrow transplant would be the last resort and needed to happen as soon as possible. All members of her family were tested, but no related match was found. The SABMR then launched a large-scale local and international donor search, which cited Ballantyne, who lives in SA, as a possible match. Further testing confirmed that she was a 100% match and the transplant was done.

Lahoud’s greatest fear was that she wouldn’t be able to watch her daughter grow up. Thankfully, the transplant successfully cured her of lymphoma and she is now cancer-free, spending lots of time gardening, reading, and walking with friends. She continued her training in open water swimming after her transplant and is actively involved in several social welfare projects in Caledon, where she now lives. To Lahoud, the selfless act meant the world and for Ballantyne, it brought a stronger sense of purpose to her life.

For more stories, follow the SABMR’s #THANKYOUDONOR campaign on

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