Today, many multi-racial people experience a greater security in their identity and are more accepted culturally and socially. Medically, however, there are some cases where bi-racial and multi-racial children may be vulnerable. Transplant of bone marrow, stem cells or umbilical cord blood as treatment for cancer or other acute illnesses have become common curative procedures. It is crucial to find the best match to reduce complications, including rejection of the transplant.
Yet, for children of mixed-race, the challenge is not the treatment. The battle is finding a donor. The odds of finding perfectly matched donors extend beyond the average long shot.
Only three percent of the National Marrow Donor Program is comprised of mixed-race donors. Of the eight million names registered in the United States, only 250,000 are of mixed decent. The difficulty in finding a genetic match is related to tissue markers that are inherited. These marker as called human leukocyte antigens (HLAs). It is believed that there are five million tissue markers, some of which are rare. Because of this, matching donors are most often the same race or ethnicity as the patient receiving the transplant.
Indira Lakshmanan and Dermot Tatlow are the parents of Devan, a 4-year-old suffering from a high risk and very rare type of leukemia. His life depends on finding a bone marrow donor. Unfortunately, his chances are greatly reduced due to his bloodline: he is one quarter South Asian and three-quarters Irish. This unique mix makes the search for matching donors a mission near impossible. According to a CBS news report that shared Devon’s story in May of this year, “Two-thirds of caucasians successfully find a donor for transplant. That drops to half for people of mixed race decent.”
Devon’s mother Indira was shocked to discover the shortage of donors. “I still find it unbelievable that they couldn’t find one match for him among 14 million donors,” she said. This number includes those registered in the US and an additional six million possible donors from the global database. “It’s not just about us, it’s about all the mixed race families out there,” says Devon’s father.
San Francisco surgeon Willis Navarro says this problem will only grow more challenging “as the world expands and there are more mixed-race kids.” Improvement in transplant treatments increase the number of patients that undergo a transplant. Mary Halet, director of recruitment for the National Marrow Donor Program, urges the public to become aware of this growing concern. “The expanded use of transplants has highlighted the pressing need for minority and mixed-race donors.”
Project Race raised this issue in the state of California. The goal was to enable parents to choose to “publicly bank their babies’ umbilical cord blood at no cost,” making such donations a viable option. In September, Project Race reported that the California Assembly and Senate passed legislation that could save the lives of multi-racial children like Devan. This landmark law, Assembly Bill 52, “will allow for funding and cost savings, which will increase umbilical cord blood collection, storage, and retrieval for patients with blood diseases, including leukemia.” Assembly Bill 52 is awaiting the Governor’s signature in California.
Each month in America there are more than 48,000 people who register as potential donors. Dr. John Lapook, CBS News medical correspondent, reports that registering to become a prospective donor could not be easier. “You simply swab the inside of your cheek for about 20 or thirty seconds.” The results could save a life. For more information about becoming a donor visit: http://www.marrow.org/DONOR/When_You_re_Asked_to_Donate_fo/Donation_FAQs/index.html#what_pbsc