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Celebrities unite in support of Sunflower Day at Vaal University of Technology

Vaal University of Technology, under the Department of Health Sciences, in collaboration with the Sunflower Foundation, successfully pulled off a stem cell donor awareness concert and blood drive on Friday, 16 September, in support of National Sunflower Day.

Pop culture plays a pivotal role in creating awareness, starting a movement and educating society, more especially the youth. Well-known celebrities such as Ayanda Thabethe, DJ Speedsta, Nadia Nakai, Okmalumkoolkat, Banger Boys, Gemini Major and Jhey Chalwe - the Christian rap artist, all showed up at the Vaal University of Technology, Vanderbilpark Campus, to support the Sunflower Day Donor Drive and awareness concert. National Sunflower Day, is an annual campaign which runs from August to the end of September.

There is a serious need for more bone marrow donations in South Africa. Statistics indicate only 7.5% of Africans are bone marrow stem cell transplant donors. The Sunflower Fund is an organisation that aims to ensure South Africans diagnosed with life-threatening blood disorders are given the chance to life, regardless of race. The biggest need is from Africans, as there is a significant dearth of donors within this race.

VUT Department of Health Sciences and the Sunflower Fund collaborated on this campaign to create awareness around the issue. Dr Christa Grobler, HOD of Health Sciences at VUT, said this initiative came about when she heard that the daughter of her colleague, Zackea Shivambu, had been diagnosed with bone marrow disease. This prompted staff members of the Health Sciences Department to act in creating awareness and encouraging VUT students to donate. "As well as raising awareness, the campaign will hopefully kick-start fundraisers to support the family, as this is a very costly process," said Dr Grobler. An air of camaraderie and unity filled the campus, as students and staff gathered at the amphitheatre to donate blood and sign up as donors on the bone marrow registry.

This act of kindness has touched Zackea and his daughter, Paballo, aged 19. She was 16 and in grade 10 when she was diagnosed with bone marrow disease. Despite being in and out of hospital and having to live with the effects of the disease, Paballo still beams with positivity and leads the life of a normal teenager as far as is possible. The concert and donor drive was in recognition and honour of Paballo and many young people living with this disease, with hopes of possibly finding a matching donor.

As there is no known cause of bone marrow disease, Zackea, who is a health sciences lecturer in the field of biomedical technology, researched as much as he could, trying to find out if there is a genetic history of this disease. Unfortunately, neither he nor Paballo's mother are a match. They are still holding onto the hope that there is a match out there.

Through this campaign, Zackea hopes a large number of Africans will be reached and become donors. "Black Africans are under the impression that bone marrow stem cell transplant donation is the harvesting of body parts; it's taboo to donate in African culture. I'd like us to change such mind sets and educate people. The more people we touch, the higher the possibilities of someone's life being saved. We would like as many people as possible to donate, because there is only one in 100 000 chance that a suitable match will be found," he said.

Ayanda Thabethe, model and Rockville actress, emceed the event. She said this was a super-awesome initiative, and she further urged young people to take action and save lives by donating.

Executive Dean of Applied and Computer Sciences, Professor Raymond Mabuza, was overwhelmed with the amount of support received from staff and students. "Stem cell donors are gifting people with life; let us all celebrate this day knowing that health is the greatest gift from God. Thank you to everyone who's here to support this initiative," he said.

Azande Ralephenya