Here’s How You Can Save A Life By Donating Your Stem Cells

“It all starts with a simple swab.”


Megan Flemmit |

When you think of everyday heroes you might think of emergency personnel. But firefighters, doctors, and paramedics are not the only ones who can save lives. You can too, by registering to be a stem cell donor.

It’s that time of the year when The Sunflower Fund carries out its annual Sunflower Day campaign. If you’ve ever wondered where the proceeds go or what’s behind the campaign look no further.

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According to The Sunflower Fund (TSF), just under 1.5 million people were diagnosed with blood cancer worldwide in 2018. From those diagnosed, thousands will require a blood stem cell transplant from a healthy donor to live. But finding a potential match is difficult. According to TSF, the chances of finding a match is 1 in 100 000.

Unfortunately, many people die without finding a match. In South Africa being matched with a donor is even trickier. Currently, less than 80 000 people are registered as donors. Of these registered only 7000 are black or of mixed heritage. According to the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) patients are most likely to find a match within their own ethnic group. The SABMR says that only 30% of patients find a match within their families. The other 70% need stem cells from an unrelated donor. As a result, both registries have made a call for more diverse volunteers to sign up as donors.

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If you’re ready to be someone’s hero, here are a few things you should know:

What Are Blood Stem Cells?

Stem cells form the building blocks of your body. They transform to become more specialised cells which make up your tissue or organs. Blood stem cells maintain your blood and immune system. They’re divided into red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. During the stem cell transplant, these cells are harvested and given to the patient.

What Happens When I Sign Up?

If you register to be a donor you might be matched with someone across the world. All national registry’s form part of a global database. While you can sign up to register via The Sunflower Fund or the South African Bone Marrow Registry, you can’t register on both simultaneously. This is to prevent a donor duplication from happening that could delay the time it takes to treat an ill patient.

How Can I Donate My Stem Cells?

Once you’ve signed up to be a donor, you’ll be sent a home DNA test. You do one simple cheek swab and send it back. The results will be analysed in the lab and recorded. Once you match with someone, you’ll be called up to donate (think of it as service to your country).

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There are two types of donation:

  • The most common one (used 90% of the time) ­­­­­­is called Peripheral Blood Stem Donation. A medical team will over-stimulate your cell for five days. Your blood is then drawn and filtered through a machine which separates the new stems from the rest. The rest is returned to your body through your other arm.
  • The other procedure is through Bone Marrow Donation. Here, doctors draw liquid marrow from your hip bone. This procedure is entirely painless as you’ll be under anaesthesia the entire time. This procedure is usually done when the patient is a small child.

Can Anyone Register?

If you’re between the age of 18 and 45 you are able to donate your stem cells. You need to weight more than 50kgs and have a BMI of less than 40. Potential donors also need to lead a healthy lifestyle and be willing to help any patient in need. Donors remain on the list until they’re fifty years old.

What Are The Costs Involved?

The DNA test costs R3100 to perform. However, this cost is voluntary. You only pay if you have the means, and want to contribute towards the process. The costs are otherwise taken care of either by the SABMR or TSF.

But footing these costs are steep. These organisations don’t receive funding from the government. As a result, they rely on monetary donations from the population to help keep them afloat. If you’d like to help out, you can donate to the SABMR here, and the TSF here.

Alternatively, The Sunflower Fund is currently running their annual Sunflower Day campaign encouraging citizens to buy their Tubes of Hope (TOPES). This year the TOPES come in six different colours and cost R30 at Pick ‘n Pay stores countrywide.

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