Did you know that an item discarded as medical waste after your baby is born could save someone’s life? Cord blood from the placenta and your baby’s umbilical cord is filled with blood-forming cells that can be used in transplants for patients with leukemia, lymphoma, and many other life-threatening diseases. Thousands of people worldwide are searching for a lifesaving marrow or cord blood donor each and every day. Just by donating your baby’s cord blood after birth, you could save a person’s life.
While some patients in need of a transplant are eligible for an autologous transplant in which the patient receives his or her own stem cells that were collected before transplant, many patients require an allogenic transplant from another individual. Some patients are fortunate to find a match in a relative, often a sibling; however, seven out of ten patients look to an unrelated donor, usually a perfect stranger, to save their lives. And currently, six out of ten patients never find a matching donor. But, you could help change those odds.
It is up to the patient’s physician to determine whether cord blood, peripheral blood, or bone marrow is the best type of transplant for the patient’s condition. Cord blood is especially useful for minority patients because it is more difficult to find a bone marrow match for patients with diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds.
So why do we need more donations? Approximately four million babies are born each year in the United States. With that many cord blood units available, you would think we could save the lives of every leukemia and lymphoma patient.
Unfortunately, there are few cord blood units available for patients in need because most parents do not donate it. Currently there are fewer than 145,000 cord blood units available for transplantation on the United States Be the Match Registry. And while the match for a cord blood transplant does not need to be as exact as for a marrow or peripheral blood transplant, each person is different, and for many patients, it is challenging to find a cord blood unit that is the right fit.
If we continue to add more cord blood units to the registry, there will be more units to choose from. With a greater selection of units comes a greater likelihood that patients whose life-threatening diseases could be cured with a transplant will be given a second chance at life.
You would think that most people would donate their babies’ cord blood if such a simple step could save a person’s life. Unfortunately, many people do not know about cord blood donations. Most physicians do not inform their patients of the option to donate their babies’ cord blood and only respond to a patient’s request to do so. And given that most patients are unaware of the option, they never ask their physicians for more information.
Lack of access is another obstacle. Philadelphia has several of the best hospitals in the world. But despite Philadelphia being a healthcare mecca, only one hospital in the region, Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood, is listed as a participating hospital by Be the Match Registry. While women who deliver at other hospitals may request that a cord blood bank come to the hospital to do the collection, limited capacity and resources limit this option significantly.
It is essential to be a proactive patient and arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible when receiving health care treatment. While the option to donate your baby’s cord blood is more beneficial to another person than yourself, imagine if one day the patient in need of a transplant is your mother, brother, or child. Wouldn’t you hope for as many options as possible to save your relative’s life?
If you’re an expecting mother, talk to your doctor for more information, and visit the Be the Match website.
- By Erica B. Cohen