Marrow donors answer plea to help Frenchman

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


The Hong Kong Bone Marrow Donor Registry has been inundated with foreign donors hoping to help a French leukaemia patient.

In the past week, about 200 non-Asians, mostly French people, turned up at donation centres to register as bone marrow donors to help find a match for a sick countryman.

About 85,000 people are registered as bone marrow donors in Hong Kong and numbers are rising by 300 to 400 per month. But 97 per cent of them are Chinese, says Lee Cheuk-kwong, head of the Bone Marrow Donor Registry. This lack of diversity significantly diminishes the chances of non-Chinese patients with leukaemia finding a donor.

The unexpected surge in would-be donors was spurred by a solidarity chain started by friends and relatives of 42-year-old Frenchman Yvan C, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia less than two months ago. The father of two, who has lived in Hong Kong since 1994, is receiving a third round of chemotherapy at the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital in Happy Valley.

At the end of last month, several of Yvan's friends contacted the French consulate, the French International School, the French Chamber of Commerce and other institutions related to their community. Their goal: multiply the number of non-Chinese people registering as bone marrow donors by the end of this month.

'We want to mobilise as many people as possible before school ends and everybody goes home for the summer holidays,' said Beatrice Remy, one of Yvan's close friends.

On June 3, people handed out donation centre details at the entrance of the French International School, as the French community cast ballots for the first round of the legislative elections. Yesterday, a group handed out 6,000 leaflets near Hong Kong Stadium before the start of the Chartis Cup rugby match.

Acute leukaemia is characterised by an increase in the number of immature blood cells, which makes the bone marrow unable to produce healthy ones.

There is a 30 per cent chance a patient has a sibling whose bone marrow is a match. When it is not the case - and it wasn't for Yvan - a transplant from another person is the patient's only hope.

According to Lee Cheuk-kwong, head of the Bone Marrow Donor Registry, there is a one in 5,000 chance of a Chinese person finding a match. But Yvan would have a higher chance of finding a donor within his own racial grouping. Using the local registry, the Red Cross will search for a donor and if unsuccessful it will move onto overseas registries.

Yvan said he was 'surprised and moved' by his friends' efforts. He has tried to explain to his six-year-old son and 10-year old daughter about his disease. 'My wife and I told them about the heavy medication and that I am going to be sick for a long time,' he said. But one thing was left out - the name leukaemia, in fear that other children would tease them.

Anyone in good health aged between 18 and 60 in Hong Kong can register as a bone marrow donor by filling in a form and providing a small amount of blood at one of the Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service centres. It takes about 15 minutes. At the Causeway Bay centre on Friday, several nurses said 15 to 20 French people had registered every day last week.

Lee said he would like to see an increase in the number of registered crease in donors in Hong Kong, with only 1.2 per cent of the population being registered.

The US has nearly 7 million donors (or about 2.2 per cent of the population) and it has a wider racial diversity than Hong Kong, which increases the chances of finding a donor. In Germany, more than 5 per cent of the population is registered.

Donor reticence in Hong Kong is often due to cultural beliefs. 'The Chinese usually see blood and bone marrow as non-replenishable tissues,' Lee said. 'But things are changing now. We have been doing a lot of education.'

East and West, people still have misconceptions about what leukaemia is and what a bone marrow donation entails. 'People wrongly think donating bone marrow will injure the spine or the nerves,' Lee said.

Yvan said he was surprised by the mobilisation. 'I know my chances are low. But if the movement can help another patient, then it's good.'

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On the register

The number of people who are registered as bone marrow donors, by country (as a percentage of the population)

Worldwide 19,682,426

Australia 174,833 (0.79pc)

France 199,459 (0.3pc)

Germany 4,570, 178 (5.62pc)

Hong Kong 85,000 (1.21pc)

Singapore 11,048 (0.2pc)

Switzerland 39,234 (0.51pc)

UK 820,487 (1.3pc)

US 6,973,165 (2.22pc)

Mainland China 1,475,457 (1.09pc)

Source: Bone Marrow Donors Worldwide (, CIA World Factbook, Hong Kong Bone Marrow Donor Registry