Read time: 3 minutes

The need for African bone marrow donors

Did you know that only 7.5% of Africans are bone marrow stem cell transplant donors? Yet there is a serious need for more bone marrow donations in South Africa. The Sunflower Fund and the VUT Department of Health Sciences have collaborated on a campaign to create awareness around the issue.

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, statistically indicated, there is a significant dearth of donors within this race.

National Sunflower Day, previously known as National Bandana Day, is an annual campaign which runs from August to the end of September. National Sunflower Day will take place on 16 September and the VUT will host a bone marrow stem cell donor drive at the Vanderbijlpark campus on this day.

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. Staff members of the Health Sciences Department were then inspired to take part in this campaign with the aims of creating awareness and possibly encourage young people to be donors. "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.

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. The news of this disease devastated her and her parents.

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 possible.

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 his wife are a match, and three years later they are still holding on to the hope that there is a match out there.

Through this campaign, Zackea hopes that 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 mindsets 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.

Zackea and Paballo will be at VUT encouraging students and staff members to be fearless donors at the Sunflower Day event. Local celebrity artists have also committed to supporting this cause. Dancer, actor and Idols judge Somizi Mhlongo, fashion icons and hip-hop artists Ricky-Rick and Okmalumcoolkat, as well as popular Y-FM presenter, DJ Speedsta, will be at VUT performing and encouraging the youth to become actively involved and start donating.

In addition, Jhey Chalwe, a lecturer at VUT'S Health Sciences Department, who has been nominated for a Christian rap artist award, will be performing a song which he wrote for the bone marrow donation campaign.

People are also encouraged to purchase the new Tube of Hope (Tope), a unique design in a selection of six beautiful colours from Pick n' Pay stores nationwide, at R25 each. Proceeds will assist The Sunflower Fund to recruit and register potential stem cell donors to join the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR). Donors should be between the ages of 18-45 years old, over 50kg and in good health.