By Sairah Masud
A BRITISH ASIAN stem cell donor has urged more people from the community to sign up to the stem cell register as she met a young boy from India with a blood disorder, whose life she saved.
Ritesh Kukreja, nine, was diagnosed with thalassemia in 2008 and received his life-saving donation from Hardeep Bains, 42, from Derby, in January 2015. The pair met for the first time at the first UK Big Love Gala, a surprise encounter organised by the blood charity group DKMS last Thursday (9) in London.
“My heritage is Indian; my parents are from Delhi. There should be more Asians on the register because in our community if we are looking for a donor, the chances of finding a match are slim,” Bains said.
Although 300,000 people have signed up as potential donors in the UK, only five
per cent are from a south Asian heritage.
“When I got the call to say you’re a match for somebody, I was like ‘I’m doing it, no matter what’. It was really important for me to donate because having kids myself, I can only imagine what the family were going through.”
DKMS operates globally – including in the UK, USA and India – and has registered more than 7.5 million donors since 1991. The charity identified Bains, who signed on in 2013, as Kukreja’s lifesaver and arranged for the donation to take place. Prior to the treatment, he was receiving blood transfusions twice a month in order to keep him alive.
“You are an angel,” the young boy said upon meeting Bains for the first time. The words were echoed by his mother, who said she was “overjoyed” to have found a match for her son.
“Words can’t express how happy we are for this match. After the transplant, it was the happiest day of our lives. Ritesh’s life has been magically transformed and it gives us hope for the future,” she told Eastern Eye.
Bain’s stem cell donation involved her blood being passed through a machine that isolates and collects the stem cells which were then transported to India and transfused into Kukreja.
DKMS Global Ambassador, Katharina Harf said: “7.7 million donors and 66,000 second chances are not enough to save the lives of blood cancer patients. My father and I won’t stop until our mission is accomplished, to create a future in which as many patients can be treated successfully and survive blood cancer”.
Dr Phil Ancliff, a consultant paediatric haematologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, said targeting young people is the best way to combat the lack of black, Asian and minority ethnic donors which was currently a “very significant problem”.
“There’s still a huge shortage of particularly black donors and Asian donors. You don’t have to have a donor of similar race, but you are more likely to find one in that population so a lot more work is needed in targeting those where we need greatest recruitment,” Dr Ancliff said.
“Scarce suitable donors mean a much riskier transplant for the patient, with a greater chance of dying as a consequence of the procedure.”
Blood cancer is the third most common cause of cancer death in the UK, with someone being diagnosed every 20 minutes, yet less than half of the UK population is aware of blood cancer issues.
Rajbinder Kullar, 37, from Wolverhampton, signed the register in 2014. She believes that the scarcity of Asian donors comes from a lack of education, and expressed concern about people’s misperception of the treatment.
“It’s not the case at all that if you become a donor, something bad is going to happen to you. My mother said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? What if something happens to you?’ It’s not as daunting as everyone thinks it is,” Kullar said.
“We’re all happy to receive, but not to give. Asian people need to know that if we all come together, we will stand a chance.”
Neema Mayor, head of immunogenetics research at the Anthony Nolan Research Institute, said that educating friends and family members was the best way to garner support for the cause. “Encouraging your friends, families and anyone you meet to find out more about the
how hard it is for patients with Asian backgrounds to find a match is one of the best ways to raise awareness,” she said.
“For 90 per cent of people, donating stem cells is a straightforward process through the bloodstream. So spreading the message that it’s not painful or scary could save a life and is really important.”
BAME patients have only a 20.5 per cent chance of finding the best possible donor match, compared to 69 per cent for northern Europeans.
A blood stem cell donation from a genetically similar person can often be the best hope of survival, but only one in three people in need of a transplant will find a matching donor in their own family.
Mayor added that last year saw record numbers of BAME people signing the charity’s donor register, and she has urged the communities to continue increasing their support.
“While the number of new donors from BAME backgrounds is an important step towards diversification, more work is needed to address imbalances in the ethnic makeup of the donor pool,” she said.
“Despite this year’s increase, BAME donors still make up just 15 per cent of the register. Joining is simple: you swab each of your cheeks but this small action could potentially save a life. You will offer hope to Asian patients who are searching for a suitable match.”
If you are between 17 and 55 years old and in general good health you can register for your home swab kit at www.dkms.org.uk.