Doctors all over the world are having difficulty finding matching donors for bone marrow transplants – a lifesaving operation for certain very serious illnesses.
And patients from ethnic minorities are the most at risk.
Because the transplants are much more likely to succeed when they are between people of similar genetic backgrounds, physicians try to find donors from the same ethnicity as the patients.
But, even in advanced nations, the pool of registered donors is relatively small, and ethnic minorities make up a small percentage of that small number.
In New Zealand, this means that patients who belong to the indigenous Maori population are much less likely to find a matching donor and receive a transplant than are the descendents of European settlers.
Rachel Sharma, a 20-year-old Auckland resident and leukemia patient, had to get substitute therapy when no matching donor could be found from the 11.6 million donors registered worldwide, the New Zealand Herald reported.
Eventually, Sharma received a cord blood transplant instead – one of only two such surgeries in New Zealand last year.
New Zealand officials have been promoting the donor registry for 12 years in an effort to bolster the numbers of Pacific Islanders on the list.
In the Czech Republic, physicians have had trouble finding matching donors for Roma, or gypsy, patients with leukemia.
“Whereas other nationalities and ethnic groups in Europe intermarried over the centuries, Roma lived in closed communities,” said Mája Vojgrová of the Plzen Faculty Hospital, as quoted in the Prague Post. “That is why they have a very specific coding that is different from other east Europeans.”
The United States has had trouble finding matches for minorities as well.
The Lake County News-Sun reported on the case of Diane Perez, an eighth grader in West Chicago, who needs a bone marrow transplant.
Doctors say she will likely die without a bone marrow transplant, but they have been unable to find a matching donor.
About six million people are on the National Marrow Donor Program, the News-Sun reported, but only one million of these are black or Hispanic.
The number of Asians and Native Americans are even lower.
WCAX, in Vermont, reported on the case of Nicole Nelson, who is of Abenaki American Indian descent, and needs a bone marrow transplant to survive.
Nelson did not even know of her American Indian heritage until after she was diagnosed with aplastic anemia.
After doctors were unable to find a matching donor for Nelson, Todd Hebert, an Abenaki man, organized a donor drive in the tribe.
Hebert had never met Nelson, but told WCAX, “I immediately wanted to do something because there’s very few of us around. I just feel that the few that there are need to be in that registry. There are other people like Nicole that are going to be in the same dilemma. I think all Native Americans should step forward to help their people.”
“Doctors look for bone marrow donors for Roma patients Ethnic patients often need related donors, doctors say”
Prague Post, January 14, 2008
“Transplant crisis hits minorities”
New Zealand Herald, January 2, 2008
“Campaign of hope”
Lake County News-Sun (Illinois), January 13, 2008
“Family’s race to find bone marrow donor”
Telegraph (UK), January 4, 2008
“Abenaki Tribe Needs Help Finding Bone Marrow Matches”
WCAX.com (Vermont) January 2, 2008