Independent MP for Kooyong, Dr Monique Ryan, has called on the government to support the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry (ABMDR) in its efforts to recruit much-needed donors.
The ABMDR is the peak body for bone marrow and stem cell donations in Australia. These are used for treatment of life-threatening conditions like leukaemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma and bone marrow failure.
Every 31 minutes, an Australian is diagnosed with a blood cancer. Almost 6000 Australians lose their lives to blood cancers every year. Many Australians would benefit from greater access to bone marrow transplants, but our registry of potential donors is shrinking rather than growing. 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.
Australians are generous people who like to help others. Most of us would love to save a life if we could. Our registry 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.
“This 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 help save Australian lives. We could be finding new donors, and treating gravely ill patients, within weeks. I ask the government 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.”
ABMDR is the only organisation in Australia responsible for arranging bone marrow/blood stem cell donations for patients in need of a transplant. It 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 onto ABMDR’s register. 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. However, the average age of a donor registered with the ABMDR is 45 years. The registry is currently losing approximately 7,000 donors each year, because donors are retired from the registry at the age of 60, and recruiting only 5,000 donors per year via Lifeblood. Furthermore, recruiting 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 and those of other ethnic minorities poses significant clinical challenges- this is an equity as well as a health care question.
In short, the current population of bone marrow donors in Australia is rapidly declining and does not meet the needs of our ethnically diverse population.
In 2019 the ABMDR establisheda pilot programme called ‘Strength to Give’, which to 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.