British Columbia

Campaign calls for more Black stem cell donors in order to save lives

A new campaign aims to spread the message that a quick cheek swab could save the life of someone who needs a stem cell transplant — especially if you're Black.

A shortage of Black stem cell donors mean patients in need of a transplant might not find a match

The Stem Cell Club has launched a campaign to get more Black donors registered as donors. (Stem Cell Club)

A new campaign aims to spread the message that a quick cheek swab could save the life of someone who needs a stem cell transplant — especially if you're Black.

Hundreds of Canadians need stem cell donations each year, but Black people are underrepresented in the country's stem cell donor registry.

A group of students and doctors are hoping to change that. Sylvia Okonofua, an aspiring medical student in Regina, is leading a campaign with the Stem Cell Club to get more Black donors registered.

"Right now, Black Canadians make up about three per cent of Canada's population but they make up less than two per cent on Canada's stem cell registry," said Okonofua, who is of Black-African ancestry. 

"This poses a problem, especially for Black patients in need of life-saving stem cell transplants."

Patients who need stem cells to treat diseases like leukemia must find a perfect match, and it's often found with donors of the same ethnic or racial background. 

But whereas around 75 per cent of white patients can find an unrelated donor, less than 20 per cent of Black people can.

Sylvia Okonofua is working with doctors across Canada on a campaign with the Stem Cell Club to get more Black donors registered. (Skype)

At any time, there are dozens of Black patients in Canada who are searching for a donor for a stem cell transplant, and many can't find one anywhere in the world. The delay can be fatal.

'Black donors save lives'

The Stem Cell Club, which was founded at the University of British Columbia and has spread to 27 campuses across Canada, has also been running focus groups to find out more about why Black Canadians are under-represented in the donor registry.

Okonofua says part of the problem is mistrust between the Black community and the medical community, a historical problem she says will not be solved overnight.

Another issue is the lack of awareness of the importance of stem cell donation, she said.

That's why Dr. Warren Fingrut, who founded Stem Cell Club, says they're pushing hard to diversify the donor list. 

Those looking to donate can register with Canadian Blood Services. To be eligible, donors must be between the ages of 17 and 35. 

Potential donors will have a cheek swab and may be contacted later on if they are found to be a match for a patient in need.

"With this campaign, Black donors save lives," Fingrut said.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly said that stem cells are specific to race. In fact, while patients are more likely to find a match from within their own racial group, the matching is based on HLA markers. The article has also been updated to reflect that donors must be between 17 and 35 and that hundreds of Canadians need a stem cell transplant each year.
    Feb 16, 2021 3:12 PM PT

With files from Jon Hernandez

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