Need for Native bone marrow sparks testing

Posted: Monday, November 04, 2002

There is a serious shortage of Alaska Native and American Indian bone marrow. But it's a problem several Kenai Peninsula organizations are working to address.

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Kenaitze Cuya Qyut'anen Head Start, Salamatof Native Associa-tion and the Blood Bank of Alaska Kenai Peninsula Center are teaming up to host an Alaska Native, American Indian and minority bone marrow testing and blood drive from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Family House, 120 N. Willow St. in Kenai.

There has been a shortage of bone marrow donations from Native people because they have not been informed of its need, Kenaitze Head Start Director Connie Wirz said.

"It is an awareness issue," she said.

Head Start already has made it a priority to do four blood drives a year. Now it hopes to educate Native people about the need for bone marrow, as well.

American Indian and Alaska Native patients do find donors for bone marrow transplants. How-ever, they are less likely than Caucasians to find a matched donor, according to the National Marrow Donor Program Web site.

While Caucasian patients searching the registry have an 80 percent chance of finding a match, other races' odds are between 20 and 55 percent.

Many Native deaths could be prevented with a marrow or blood stem cell transplant, according to the Web site. Stem cells are immature cells that can develop into red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

Those who are in need of transplants are infected with leukemia, aplastic anemia or other blood diseases. The transplants require matching certain tissue traits of the donor and patient.

These traits are inherited. This means a family member is most likely to match the patient.

However, 70 percent of patients are unable to find a match in their own families, according to the NMDP.

It is possible for a Native patient to match a donor from any racial or ethnic group, but the most likely match is another American Indian or Alaska Native.

As of Aug. 31, the NMDP has helped with 14,859 unrelated stem cell transplants, 64 of which have been for American Indian and Alaska Native patients.

The NMDP started a national education and recruitment initiative called Keep the Circle Strong; it focuses on finding Native marrow volunteers. Since it started in 1995, the number of transplants performed on Native patients has doubled.

Once the local Native commun-ity understands bone marrow donors are needed, Wirz said she hopes people will be prompt to step up to the plate and do what they can.

Bone marrow donation needs to be a priority for Native people, she said.

Since the peninsula blood bank opened in 1999, bone marrow donors with a possible match to patients have been found only four times, said Blood Bank of Alaska Kenai Peninsula Center Director Rita Wydra.

Just to help one or two families will make a tremendous difference, Wirz said.

The blood bank is only looking for a match at the drive. People wanting to donate marrow will have six tubes of blood drawn, rather than the usual five for blood donors. The sixth tube will be sent to Puget Sound Blood Center in Washington state to be tested for a match.

If there is a match, the donor will be sent to where the patient is to undergo the surgical procedure to have the bone marrow removed, Wydra said.

"I hope this can sprout some awareness throughout the Native community in general -- not just Kenai," Wirz said.

"I truly believe when we see a need we will meet that need."

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