Last updated on Jun 23rd, 2021 at 03:50 pm

Leukaemia and blood disorders may be considered rare, the kind of things you see on medical dramas but not in real life but, according to The Global Cancer Observatory (GCO), a South African is diagnosed with a blood disorder every 5 minutes

While the number of patients is constantly rising, there are only under 77 000 registered bone marrow donors in the country. 

To end off National Bone Marrow Stem Cell Donation and Leukaemia Awareness Month 15 August – 15 October, The Sunflower Fund shared what you can do about Leukaemia.

READ MORE: 4 Cancer-fighting foods + recipes

What is Leukaemia? defines leukaemia as a cancer of the blood-forming cells, “leukaemia is a cancer of the white blood cells, but some leukaemias start in other blood cell types. There are several types of leukaemia, which are divided based mainly on whether the leukaemia is acute (fast-growing) or chronic (slower growing), and whether it starts in myeloid cells or lymphoid cells. Different types of leukaemia have different treatment options and outlooks,” they say.   

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Alana James, CEO of the Sunflower Fund says that Sunflower Day, which will be celebrated on 13 November this year in light of COVID-19, has become a beacon of hope to the many who suffer from blood disorders. “This is because the funds from the tope sales, which will be on sale from 1 October 2020, assists in ensuring that The Sunflower Fund can continue the life-saving work they do – recruiting donors and assisting patients who require financial support with getting to transplant.” 

However, the statistics around blood disorders versus the number of donors in the country is shocking, says Alana. 

READ MORE: How you can help people with leukaemia

Donors in South Africa

“To further complicate matters, a patient’s best chance of finding a matching donor is from someone within the same ethnic or cultural group as them,” says Alana.

Unfortunately, she says patients of colour are at a disadvantage due to the lack of black, coloured and indian population groups in the global donor database. “One such example is six-year-old Azile Ngubane, who started experiencing joint pain and weight loss, which after a series of tests resulted in a diagnosis of Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. Azile, has no siblings and is currently still desperately in search of a match to save her life.”

Finding a matching donor comes down to genetics. “There is a common misconception that a genetic match can only exist within the family; however, there is only a 25% chance that a sibling could be a match. The remaining 75% chance is based on finding an unrelated matching donor and there is only a 1:100 000 chance of a patient finding a match, making the need for donors crucial,” she explains.

READ MORE: Become a bone marrow donor today

Who is at risk?

Blood disorders are complex and range from more frequently heard of blood cancers like Leukaemia to Aplastic Anaemia, Sickle Cell disease, bone marrow failure, red, white and autoimmune blood cell illness, explains James. “They do not discriminate against certain cultures or ethnicities, genders or societal status, and are not all hereditary; so anyone can be diagnosed at any age.” 

“The many misapprehensions around blood disorders and stem cell donations are a major challenge for us as an organisation, making it so much more difficult to secure the much-needed donors,” says Alana. “There tends to be confusion between blood donation, organ donation and stem cell donation – these are completely different databases. There are also many cultural and religious uncertainties that people think are cause for them not to register.”

However, in order to assist as many patients diagnosed with Leukaemia and other blood disorders as possible with finding their life-saving match, James calls on more South African’s to take action in one of the following ways:

How to become a donor

Become a donor, it’s not as painful as people think: Most people worry that the procedure to register or donate stem cells will be painful. Registering involves three swabs of DNA collected from the inside of your mouth and cheeks and can be done from the comfort of your home. When you are a match for a patient, donating is non-invasive, and doesn’t require an operation, anaesthetic or incisions. While many people think that once they become a donor they will be asked to donate stem cells more than once you will only donate stem cells once in your life when you are a match for a patient.

Becoming a donor is completely free as there are no costs involved at any point in the process. 

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.