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Saving lives from blood cancers: young men from Pasifika and First Nations background join Australia’s blood stem cell register at Tackling Leukaemia event

“Every 31 minutes someone in Australia is diagnosed with blood cancer. Almost 6000 Australians lose their lives to blood cancers every year”, said Dr Monique Ryan, Independent MP for Kooyong, today at the Tackling Leukaemia event in Box Hill, Melbourne.

“Today I joined with Lisa Smith, CEO of Australia’s only blood stem cell registry, in support of her Strength to Give recruitment initiative, encouraging Australians aged 18-35 to join the registry, either through a quick, painless cheek swab or through a blood donation. I’m calling on the Australian government to support the ABMDR in its lifesaving work.”

Tackling Leukaemia hosted its inaugural Rugby 10’s competition at the Box Hill Rugby Club today and encouraged young Australians from Pasifika and First Nations backgrounds to sign up to the blood stem cell register for their chance to save a life.

Tackling Leukaemia has been supporting Strength to Give since 2019, encouraging rugby players from Pasifika and First Nations backgrounds to join the registry by swab. Events like this are vital in recruiting donors from backgrounds which are currently underrepresented in the Australian registry. Patients’ best chance of finding a match is with a donor from a similar background. The Australian registry is the main source of donors from Pasifika and First Nations backgrounds. “We urgently need more donors from these backgrounds to meet the needs of Pasifika and First Nations patients,” Dr Ryan said today. To do this, we need Minister Butler to allow the ABMDR to use its existing funding ($12.8 million) for donor recruitment and tissue-typing. “The money is in the bank already”, Dr Ryan said today. “The government could free it up with the stroke of a pen, allowing the ABMDR to do its job and save Australian lives. We could be finding new donors - and treating gravely ill patients - within weeks. The government needs to share the sense of urgency felt by patients and their families. We have to support this vital service in its efforts to help Australians.”

The Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry (ABMDR) is the only organisation responsible for arranging bone marrow/blood stem cell donations in Australia. These donations are used for treatment of life-threatening conditions like leukaemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma and bone marrow failure. The ABMDR is a registered charity funded by the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments. Australian governments also contract the Australian Red Cross (Lifeblood) to recruit blood donors.

Every 31 minutes, an Australian is diagnosed with a blood cancer. Many would benefit from greater accessto bone marrow/blood stem cell transplants, but our registry of potential donors is shrinking rather than growing. There are currently only 140,000 contactable donors on the ABMDR registry. To join the registry, you need to be healthy and aged between 18-35 years as younger people make the most successful donors for patients in need of a transplant. Additional registrants to the ABMDR from diverse ethnic backgrounds are urgently required, but funding for this initiative is lacking.

More than 80% of match-unrelated donations come from overseas - at a cost of approximately $50,000/donor- because we don’t have enough donors registered in Australia. The situation is particular concerning for Southern-East Asian, Pasifika and First Nations individuals - it’s often not possible to find a suitable match for those patients, meaning that they are denied this potentially life-saving treatment.

The registry is currently losing approximately 7,000 donors each year, because donors are retired from the registry at the age of 60. It’s recruiting only 5,000 donors per year via Lifeblood. Furthermore, recruitment to the donor registry does not currently reflect the ethnic diversity of Australia’s population, meaning it can be more difficult to identify a donor match for ethnically diverse people. Access to donors for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients as well as those of other ethnic minorities poses significant challenges. This is an equity as well as a health care question.

Most Australians would love to save a life if we could. The ABMDR could be expanded easily - all it takes is consent from a donor and a painless cheek swab - but funding for recruiting and tissue-typing of potential donors is tied up in red tape. The Government has so far refused to allow the ABMDR to use $12.8 million it already has in the bank - money it could use for donor recruitment and tissue-typing.

In 2019 the ABMDR established a pilot programme called ‘Strength to Give’, which demonstrated how effectively it could recruit donors using home-delivered cheek swab kits. Similar kits are used each year to recruit millions of donors overseas. In July 2020 governments approved the recruitment of 6,000 donors through this program, which was completed in April 2021. In its first year, this included more than 4360 ethnically diverse donors and 2303 men aged 19-35 years. The pilot came to a halt in 2021 due to a lack of ongoing funding.

Recruitment via cheek swabs, in addition to blood banks, will be rapid and cost-effective but is not yet available to the general population. The government recently announced that it’s looking at further funding for the registry, but no funds have yet been allocated. Australians continue to wait for our government to support a lifesaving initiative.

For more information on the Strength to Give program, visit:

For more information or a comment from Dr Monique Ryan, please contact: [email protected]

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