A global pandemic is daunting enough on its own; its presence alongside existing disorders has brought up a set of intractable challenges. While the virus has brought the world to a standstill, the truth of the matter is that treatment of other serious and more fatal conditions has become increasingly difficult.
As president of Sheffield Marrow, one of the students branches of the blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan, I have been especially aware of how stem cell transplant therapy faced multiple challenges during these unprecedented times.
Anthony Nolan is a charity that signs people up to the stem cell register finds match for people suffering from blood cancer and other blood disorders and helps them receive life-saving stem cell transplants. It was started in 1974 by Shirley Nolan; her son Anthony was born with a rare condition called Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome, the only cure for which was a bone marrow transplant. None of his family were a match for him; in fact, only 25% of UK patients find a match within their family. At the time there was no system to find unrelated donors, so Shirley Nolan established the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Register. Sadly, Anthony was not able to find a match and died aged 7, but his legacy lives on: Anthony Nolan was able to help over 1000 people just last year.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had an effect on every facet of the world, and Anthony Nolan’s work is no exception. The transport of donated stem cells to patients has been affected. To combat this, a hub was set up at Heathrow Airport to ensure that donated stem cells reached patients securely.
Anthony Nolan launched an emergency coronavirus appeal in April 2020, aiming to raise £10,000 a month to help maintain the cost of the Heathrow hub. Sheffield Marrow joined the fundraising efforts raising £739 through various efforts including a Bollywood Dance class, and Miles for Marrow where we collectively ran over 1000 miles in the month of April.
Another critical challenge was the number of people signing up to the register which has dropped significantly since the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown that ensued.
With the absence of physical recruitment campaigns on university campuses, gyms, and major events, we have to rely on online sign-ups, which typically yields lower numbers.
With someone getting diagnosed with a form of blood cancer every 14 minutes, this challenge is particularly concerning as it may mean patients aren’t able to find a match.
Another harrowing statistic for you! Currently 69% of people find a match from a stranger, but this drops drastically to 20% if the patient is from a Black, Asian or ethnic minority background.
Veer is a 4-year-old boy from Harrow with a rare blood disorder called Fanconi Anaemia who urgently needs a stem cell transplant.
His Indian heritage means that it is more difficult for him to find a match. A recent update from his parents says that Veer’s blood cell counts are declining rapidly, making his need for a transplant extremely urgent.
These challenges seem insurmountable but have a fairly easy solution: save more people by signing more people up. The more people there are on the register, the better chance there is of patients like Veer being able to find their match.
There is a common myth that donating stem cells is a painful process, one that could even discourage people from taking on this life-saving endeavour.
However, the donation process is fairly simple. 90% of people donate via Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) collection.
The procedure is similar to giving blood; as blood leaves one arm stem cells are filtered out, and blood goes back in through the other arm. The procedure typically takes up to 5 hours, and is a simple outpatient one, with no side-effects other than mild flu- like symptoms for a few days.
Only 10% of people are asked to donate from the bone marrow from their pelvis which is done under general anaesthetic, so donors feel no pain. Afterwards, donors may feel a bit sore, as if they’ve had a workout, but that’s it – and it can make a lifesaving difference.
There is a common myth that donating stem cells is a painful process, one that could even discourage people from taking on this life-saving endeavour. However, the donation process is fairly simple. 90% of people donate via Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) collection.
The sign-up process is really easy; fill a form online with some personal details, and Anthony Nolan will mail a pair of swabs to you which you can then rub in the inside of your cheek for 30 seconds, seal in an envelope and send back.
You can also donate to Anthony Nolan, via Sheffield Marrow’s JustGiving page: https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/sheffieldmarrow2019
Finally, please help spread the word and raise awareness for our cause. With your help, we will not let this pandemic slow our fight for people and their right to life!