Why Aren't More African Americans Becoming Bone Marrow Donors?
4 months ago
They have the power to save lives in their community.
Within a day of Robin Roberts announcing that she was fighting a rare blood disorder, the number of Americans who signed up to be bone marrow donors increased more than 1,000 percent. After two weeks, 15,000 people had registered.
As generous as the offers were, the "Good Morning America" host didn't need them. Her sister Sally-Ann was a match, and Roberts has since passed the 100-day critical mark following the transplant.
Roberts was fortunate. There is an approximately 30 percent chance that a patient will have a relative whose bone marrow is a match. But had she been an only child without any close relatives, the pool to pick from would have been significantly smaller. The prospective donor probably would have had to be of a similar ethnic background.
Of the nation’s 10 million registered potential bone marrow donors, only 7 percent are black. In contrast, 70 percent are white.
So, what's stopping the black community from contributing?
Some blame it on the Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted from 1932 to 1972, in which 600 black men were enrolled to study the progression of untreated syphilis. The subjects were never told of their infection nor treated for the disease even after penicillin was shown to be an effective cure.
Others point to Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer whose cervical cancer cells were taken without her consent after she died in 1951. The cells helped to create the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning and more. Her story was the basis for the New York Times best-seller "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot.
"I'm not sure how many in the black community have read about Henrietta Lacks' story," Maxine Jones, a professor of history at Florida State University, said in an email. "Many, I am sure are familiar with the Tuskegee experiment...both stories probably confirmed the distrust of the medical profession that blacks in this country have had for years. Many of them have older relatives who refused to have anyone 'cut' on them or have an operation that might ease their pain or even save their lives."
Laura Wilkinson Sinton, a communications consultant and former member of the Feminist Women's Health Center Board in Atlanta, agreed. Blacks are even reluctant to donate blood.
"The Red Cross of Atlanta has a difficult time getting blood donations from African Americans in equal proportion to the population, and officials there have shared similar attribution of the problem -- a long standing reticence amongst older African Americans to trust the medical authorities," she said in an email. "Earning trust has been a focus for many here."
But Farrah Parker, 33, who owns a public relations and marketing firm in Los Angeles, sees things differently. Parker blames the small number on the lack of a public awareness campaign about how donating marrow, organs and tissue can save lives.
"Unfortunately, bone marrow is not a common conversation topic addressed in the black community," she said. "Medical organizations must address the need for a strategic approach to communicating with African Americans to highlight the plight that patients of color face due to their lack of donor participation."