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SA’s young cancer patients to get a second lease on life

In SA, cost is the main barrier for patients in need of an unrelated donor.
In SA, cost is the main barrier for patients in need of an unrelated donor.

Children with blood cancers or disorders such as leukaemia and aplastic anaemia often face barriers when seeking stem cell transplantation.

Not only do they struggle to find matching donors, but the costs related to finding a donor is one of their biggest hurdles.

But a pilot project by two international NGOs that connect patients with their donor match for a life-saving marrow treatments — DKMS and Be The Match — is set to dismantle this barrier among South African children.

Through DKMS state patient support in partnership with Be The Match, the two organisations will financially assist eight cancer patients, from infancy to 18 years, who are in need of a blood stem cell transplant from unrelated volunteer donors.

On Monday the programme was launched at Red Cross Children’s Hospital, one of the two centres of excellence that treat blood cancers in SA. Another hospital that will benefit from the programme is Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria.

While the country’s public health system fully covers the cost of the blood stem cell transplantation for patients who have found a matching donor, for those who rely on an unrelated donor finding a match can cost anything between R100,000 and R1m due to donor search, intricate medical tests, and collection of the blood stem cells. The public healthcare system will cover the cost of the transplant itself.

DKMS global CEO Elke Neujahr said that by alleviating the financial burden on state patients, “we can help more families and give parents hope that their children will have a healthy future”.

“As an international organisation committed to the fight against blood cancer we have expanded our mission to improve the access to transplantation for patients in low- and middle-income countries. In SA, costs are the main barrier for patients in need of an unrelated donor. No family should worry about not being able to afford life-saving treatment for their child.”

Prof Alan Davidson, paediatric oncologist at Red Cross Children’s Hospital, described the pilot project as “an exciting initiative”. 

“In many instances, the only hope that a blood disorder or blood cancer patient has is a blood stem cell transplant. We believe that efforts to expand access to bone marrow transplantation to more South African children need to be prioritised,” he said.

Prof David Reynders, head of the clinical paediatric oncology unit at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital, noted that even though SA’s public healthcare system needs to perform at least 250 paediatric blood stem cell transplants each year, “sadly fewer than 30 transplants are done annually with children”.

“One of the major reasons for this is the strain on the public healthcare sector and lack of funding and support for the search for and treatment of unrelated donors.” He said the pilot project will give children a second lease on life.

The two NGOs said they hope to expand the pilot beyond SA’s borders soon. They have likened the search for a genetic twin as “like finding a needle in a haystack”.

“Donors of South African origin have unique tissue characteristics that are severely underrepresented in the global database. In this respect, SA’s rainbow nation is at a distinct disadvantage, requiring a large pool of prospective donors. Thus, it is also necessary to register as many potential blood stem cell donors as possible to increase the likelihood of finding the perfect match for South African patients,” the NGOs noted.

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