Lack of minority donors in bone marrow registries ‘one part of a larger, systemic, problem’

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Image: Mayo Clinic

People of two or more races are uniquely disadvantaged when it comes to bone marrow matching. Blood diseases such as leukemia or Hodgkin lymphoma can be treated by replacing damaged bone marrow with a healthy transplant, ideally taken from a parent or biological sibling. But for many people, immediate family isn’t an option. Registries can potentially provide a match, but it has to be near exact.

Ethnic minorities as a whole comprise just 30% of the entries in Be The Match, a nonprofit operated by National Marrow Donor Program, which, with 16 million individuals registered, is the world’s largest and most diverse marrow registry. What’s more, a tiny 3% of its donors self-identify as mixed-race, making us the demographic with some of the lowest odds of finding a match.

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“Bone marrow donation is like so many aspects of medicine, where the focus has been on white patients (and donors) for so long that nonwhite people are still trying to catch up in terms of representation,” said Asha Sundararaman who is South Indian and Caucasian, and enrolled to become a donor in 2007 after seeing a call for mixed-race bone marrow. “Our lack of matches is just one part of a larger, systemic, problem.”

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