Why Aren't More African Americans Becoming Bone Marrow Donors?
3 months ago
They have the power to save lives in their community.
Only about a third of the need for African-American transplants is being met by Be the Match, one of the world's largest listing of potential marrow donors, according to the nonprofit's national account executive, Nadya Dutchin.
She said, though, that the numbers don't tell the entire story. The chances of finding a match depend on a host of factors other than race.
"When compared to the U.S. population, minorities are not underrepresented on the Be The Match Registry," said Dutchin. "But matching is not as simple as that. Chances of finding a match vary by individual based on their tissue type. Due to genetic diversity, a person’s tissue type may be common, uncommon or rare."
Among the misconceptions were that all donations involve risky surgery with a long recovery, pieces of the donor's bone are removed, and it costs money to donate.
"Some people don’t join the registry because they have a misunderstanding about how painful the process is," Dutchin added. "When you donate marrow, you are under general anesthesia and feel no pain during the procedure. Most donors say they would do it again to save a life."
Faith McKinney, a 46-year-old organ recipient and donor from Indianapolis, admits she had hang ups.
In 1998, McKinney, a mother of two—one with special needs—needed a cornea transplant because of a hereditary condition. She was surprised when the black family of a young boy donated his eyes, organs and tissue.
"My first thought was that this family was rich and white because I couldn't believe a black family would give so much when they've lost a child," McKinney said. "At the time, my son was very young and the love of my life so I couldn't imagine making the choice to donate parts of him to anyone for anything. Nevertheless, I was truly grateful for their gift. I vowed that I wanted to be rich and experience giving from such abundance."
Twelve years later, McKinney got her chance when she received an email from her cousin in search of a kidney donor for her husband. McKinney believed the message was "meant" for her, but her family—even after it was proven she was a perfect match—didn't agree.
"When I did tell my parents, they immediately resisted the idea," said McKinney. "The first reason they named for not donating was my special needs daughter Camille. Also, my recipient is not related by blood which made my donation even more obscene to them. They also turned my husband against an idea he once supported. It was rough, but after a few months they supported my decision.
She added: "We are both doing great now!" referring to her cousin's husband. Without her, he may have never found a donor.
According to the New York Stem Cell Foundation, the chance of an African-American patient finding a bone marrow match is less than 17 percent, compared to 70 percent of white patients, and while that statistic alone should be enough to get people out of their seats, the call for registering remains unrelenting.
"Our ultimate goal is to provide a matching donor for every patient who needs one,” said Jeffrey W. Chell, chief executive officer of the National Marrow Donor Program, which operates Be The Match. “The only way we can accomplish this is by increasing the ethnic diversity on the registry."