Why Multiracials Need Bone Marrow Donors

Multiracial people used to be referred to as “mixed blood” or “half blooded”. While those terms may be outdated and derogatory, when it comes to finding a bone marrow donor, it literally does come down to genetic mix.

Did you know that mixed-race people  have especially difficult odds of finding a bone marrow donor in the event of leukemia or rare blood diseases? For mixed patients, their monoracial parents and relatives will not likely match them. Even among their siblings, the odds are only one in four of finding a donor. While multiethnic people are the largest growing minority group, they are also the smallest percentage in bone marrow registries. That’s why in 2009, a non-profit organization called Mixed Marrow was created to address that need.

Multiracial, Lower Odds of Finding a Match

Every year, over 30,000 people are diagnosed in the US with life threatening blood diseases, such as leukemia. For many patients, a bone marrow transplant is their only chance at survival. While the overall chances of finding a donor match in the family is 30%, the odds are much lower for a multiethnic person.

Currently, only 2% of registered donors are mixed-race. And41% of mixed-race people are under eighteen years old — too young to donate. Because not all mixes are the same combination, the actual odds of a mixed race patient finding a match is lower than 2% because of the variety of possible mixes in the registry.

Asian Cultural Barriers

It is hard enough for Asians — who are already underrepresented in bone marrow registries — to find a match.  Cultural barriers that prevent many Asian Americans from “donating” part of their body, and the idea can be a little scary. I finally registered myself as a potential donor several years ago, when my church held a drive through the Asian American Donor Program for a Taiwanese woman in Texas, who was the relative of one of our members.

The odds are even smaller for a Hapa person, who will probably need a donor who is specifically of the same ethnic blend: ie. my children would need a donor who is also Taiwanese-English-Irish, not just say, Asian and white. Race and ethnicity hold an important role because six antigens (markers on your cells) must line up between the patient and donor to create a perfect match. These antigens are inherited, so a match is more likely if the donor comes from a similar ethnic background. The  patients who have the hardest time finding a match are those of Asian-African or Asian-Hispanic descent.

Cord-banking could be especially useful for Hapa children, because of the increased complexity of of finding a bone marrow donor. Unfortunately, like most parents we know, my husband and I did not opt for umbilical cord banking for our children (it just sounded like a creepy, paranoid scam preying upon the fears of new parents). If we had known about the difficulties multiethnic children face in finding a donor match, we might have given it more thought. The most important thing now, is to encourage mixed-race adults to be tested and registered as potential bone marrow donors.

Mixed Marrow Documentary

Filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns, who I recently interviewed for “One Big Hapa Family”, feels so strongly about the importance of these increasingly complex medical issues that he is working on his next documentary, “Mixed Match” about this topic. He currently working with an LA-based group called Mixed Marrow and interviewing patients about their experiences. You can get updates on this project through the “Mixed Match” Facebook page.

Did you participate in umbilical cord banking? Are you registered as a bone marrow donor?

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For more articles that might be of interest to you, check out the Multicultural Awareness Blog Carnival at Bicultural Mom.

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