March 31, 2008
From the moment we started discussing how we were going to get the word out about registering for bone marrow donations, the question of ethnicity—or rather its importance—came up. The seemingly contradictory message is this: ethnicity is important in matching, but it's not important in donating.
Getting past any issues of genetics, it's all a matter of odds. Let's say I have two friends, one a black Trinidadian and one a white Irishman. Who should donate to help me?
The answer is both. The odds favour the Trinidadian because of our similar ancestry, but the key word is favour. The Irishman might still match me; it's just that the odds are lower. Think of it this way: When you buy a lottery ticket, you have better odds of winning $100 than of winning $1,000,000. The odds favour the $100 winnings (if any), but you're still shooting for that jackpot.
So in one sense ethnicity means nothing. If you're going to donate, just do it no matter who you are. On the other hand, ethnicity means a lot. Because the bone marrow registries are overwhelmingly Caucasian, it means people of other ethnicities—particularly if they're mixed—have a much lower statistical chance of finding a match. Therefore it's also important for ethnic minorities to turn out and donate, as it bolsters the overall well-being of their communities.
A few more recent news stories highlight the issue. KIRO-TV reports on Greg Hachey, who is half-Filipino, half-Caucasian; Thaindian News mentions that the odds of a South Asian finding a match in the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) is 1 in 20,000 versus 1 in 15 for Caucasians; and a Philly.com article about the late saxophonist Michael Brecker (whose music I was listening to last night, by coincidence) who was personally affected by the under-representation of Jews and eventually promoted drives to help blacks.