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According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, every four minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer, and every ten minutes, a patient dies. The only way to cure many of these patients is through a bone marrow transplant. Nevertheless, when people hear the words “bone marrow donation,” they often conjure up images of doctors drilling into their spine, removal of bones, and excruciating pain. The truth is that bone marrow donation is actually a simple, safe, and relatively painless process. However, a lack of understanding about this process is a major reason why it is difficult for many patients, especially those of South Asian or other minority descent, to find suitable donors. Each year, more than 1,000 people die waiting for a bone marrow transplant, according to the Institute for Justice. Registering to donate is a quick, simple task that could potentially save someone’s life.  We at SAHI, South Asian Health Initiative, aim to spread this message that a few minutes of your time can make all the difference to another individual, family and an entire community.

First, what is a bone marrow transplant? A bone marrow transplant is a medical procedure in which a patient’s damaged or destroyed bone marrow stem cells are replaced with healthy stem cells from a donor. Bone marrow is a tissue found in our bones. The stem cells within marrow continuously divide and form fresh blood cells for our body. Bone marrow cannot produce new blood cells when patients suffer from blood cancers, like leukemia, and other blood disorders. Sometimes, bone marrow stem cells are also damaged or destroyed during radiation or chemotherapy used to treat these cancers. In either case, a bone marrow transplant is required so that the patient’s marrow can form new blood cells.

Additionally, various inaccurate stereotypes often discourage people from even joining the registry. In reality, about three-fourths of bone marrow donations are non-surgical procedures which take no marrow at all. And unlike donating organs, bone marrow and stem cells grow back after donation.

PBSC, or Peripheral Blood Stem Cell, donations are the non-surgical procedures that involve removing blood from the arm and filtering out the stem cells within through a machine. Blood stem cells are also able to replace bone marrow stem cells. Donors are given injections of a drug, Filgrastim, for five days before the donation to stimulate the growth of these blood stem cells. Filgrastim may cause some head or body aches which will cease after the completion of the doses.

In the remaining one-fourth of donations, bone marrow is extracted from the hip bone. During this procedure, the patient is under general anesthesia, and feels no pain. A needle is inserted into the back of the pelvic bone and the marrow is withdrawn. Afterwards, the donor may feel some lower back discomfort, similar to muscle soreness after working out, for a couple of days. Unlike the various myths people have heard, this procedure is extremely safe, and is not particularly painful. Marrow is never taken from the spine, and there is no risk of paralysis.

Donors can donate marrow only to patients with the same genetic type as them. HLA, or Human Leukocyte Antigen, genes, are markers which help the body distinguish between its own cells and foreign invaders. Without an HLA gene match, white blood cells produced by the bone marrow will attack the patient’s body.

Only 30% of patients who need a transplant find a donor within their family, and the remaining 70% must look for a match outside their family. These matches occur along racial lines; in other words, it is far more likely for registered donors to match patients of the same race or ethnicity. However, minorities, such as South Asians, are severely underrepresented in the bone marrow registry, the database of willing and able donors. Only 2% of the registry is comprised of South Asians, making it extremely difficult to find matches. Furthermore, “South Asian” is a broad category, including various ethnicities, such as Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Nepali, and Bangladeshi.

SAHI is a project started by three college students, Dhruv Manchala (Claremont McKenna), Yasaswi Vengalasetti (UC Davis), and Shreyas Bharadwaj (UC Davis), based in the Bay Area, to spread awareness about the bone marrow registry and the need for more donors among the South Asian and other minority communities. So far, SAHI has held a bone marrow drive at the FIA Festival of India, an Indian Independence Day celebration in Fremont, and is targeting several more South Asian events, such as the CRY America Walk in Fremont, September 29, and the Diwali Festival, Cupertino, October 12. SAHI has also published other articles, and is promoting their cause through their Facebook page.

List of Common Myths

Myth 1: Bone marrow donation is a painful process.

Reality: 75% of the time, stem cells are collected from the blood in a mildly uncomfortable process similar to donating blood. When marrow is actually taken from the bone, the donor is under anesthesia and only experiences some discomfort for a few days.

Myth 2: I don’t want to be donor, because I’ll have to give marrow from my spine.

Reality: Bone marrow is never collected from the spine. It is taken from the back of the hips in a safe and painless procedure.

Myth 3: Donating bone marrow stem cells is expensive and/or inconvenient.

Reality: Donors can donate at locations near them, and the stem cells will be transported to the patient. Furthermore, any expenses are taken care of by the Be The Match organization, which facilitates these donations.

Myth 4: There are millions of registered donors, so I don’t need register.

Reality: Despite the fact that there are over 10 million registered donors in the US, according to the National Bone Marrow Donor Program, the odds of finding the perfect match can be lower than 1 in 20,000 for minorities, such as South Asians. New registrees are always needed.

Myth 5: Registration is a difficult process.

Reality: Registration takes about ten minutes, is free, and only involves filling out a form and swabbing your cheeks with cotton buds.