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Desperate call for donors to save lives

Sithokozile Mbele is raising awareness over the urgent need to find stem cell donors of African, mixed race and Indian ethnicity.

Sithokozile Mbele is raising awareness over the urgent need to find stem cell donors of African, mixed race and Indian ethnicity.

Published Oct 30, 2021

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WHILE most cancer deaths (60%) are among black South Africans, only 10% are registered as stem cell donors.

And this is a statistic that Durban’s Sithokozile Mbele, 31, is looking to drastically change with a growing urgent need for stem cell donors of African, coloured and SA Indian ethnicity.

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Bone marrow stem cell donors save the lives of those with cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma.

Mbele is a stem cell donor, as well as a blood donor and registered as a potential organ donor.

This week, she said she first donated blood when she was a teen, but her desire to help those with sickness was sparked when she was very young.

“From the age of two or three years, I had to wear glasses and, when I was in primary school, I spent a lot of time in the library and not on the playing fields because I broke my glasses a lot. Also, I loved reading and didn’t watch much TV as I couldn’t see it properly.

“In the library, I met other kids who had illnesses such as cancer and diabetes and were not able to play in the sun. Some were losing their hair, some were very pale, and other kids ignored them. I was there to be a friend for them. When I was 16, I donated blood and realised I wanted to make a change in other people’s lives.”

Mbele, an IT professional, said her mother was very supportive about her becoming a donor, but her father had found it more difficult because of cultural reasons.

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“My dad didn’t understand at first, but he said if that’s what I wanted to be, he couldn’t stand in my way. He said I was a ‘special case’.

“I’ve always been the odd one out, but my family have supported me and think I’m very brave,” she said.

Registered as a possible donor match, she got a call in 2019, advising that she was a donor match to a patient.

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“I went to give blood, it was not painful at all and I was fine afterwards.

“I was very happy during the whole procedure, knowing I may be saving someone’s life ‒ perhaps I was giving a child a future, or perhaps a mother the chance to have more time with her child,” said Mbele, explaining that donors never learnt the identity of the matched recipients.

For Mbele, becoming a donor was a way of paying it forward: “If it was my mom or kid who needed a donor, I would want someone to help.

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“There are a lot of white donors, but for black and coloured people, we have these sicknesses but so few people who survive them. If we find something is wrong, we don’t talk about it.

“We need to spread the word out there, our own people are suffering and we need to help.

“I’m always sharing my story and I hope that somehow, somewhere my story will motivate other people. It’s never too late to make a change.”

The SA Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) confirmed that the total number of African donors on its registry was 7 387, Asian-Indian 7 225 and coloured 5 796, while there were 48 620 registered white donors.

The World Bone Marrow Registry has more than 39 million registered donors, with only a small percentage being donors of colour.

SABMR deputy director Jane Ward said that each year in South Africa, there were an estimated 4 000 new cases of blood disorders, such as leukaemia and lymphoma, which required a stem cell transplant, with only 2.8% of black patients able to find an unrelated (non-family) donor match. Finding a match was highest among donors of a patient’s own ethnic group.

“Sadly, the remainder goes without a transplant and eventually succumb to the disease. Some of them are still babies,” said Ward.

A stem cell transplant is similar to giving blood and is a non-surgical, outpatient procedure.

“There’s no greater gift that you can give someone than the gift of life. The more black people who come forward, the more lives can be saved in other parts of the world too,” said Ward.

At any given time, there are more than 70 black patients referred to the SABMR and awaiting an urgent match.

To register as a potential donor, you can complete an online questionnaire, after which a cheek swab kit ‒ either taken at a nearby laboratory, or delivered to and collected from your home free of charge.

For more information, go to www.sabmr.co.za, call 021 447 8638 or email [email protected]

The Independent on Saturday

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