The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Chris McGowan Headshot

Brazil: A World Leader In Bone Marrow Donors

Posted: Updated:

In 2010, the well-known Brazilian television actress Drica Moraes was diagnosed with acute leukemia and received a bone marrow transplant in São Paulo. Today she is practicing her profession again and has given many interviews to the Brazilian press about her recovery. Living in Brazil, Drica had a better chance than she would have had in most other nations to find a matching donor for her transplant. Her country has the third largest donor bank in the world, with more than two million registered volunteer bone marrow donors. That is a remarkable number, considering that Brazil had only twelve thousand registered volunteer donors in 2000. Once again, Brazil is taking its place among global leaders, this time in a lesser known but extremely important category.

At the beginning of 2011, someone near and dear to me in Brazil was also diagnosed with acute leukemia. She went through a successful chemotherapy treatment in a hospital in Rio de Janeiro and didn't need a transplant. Alas, the three other leukemia patients on her hospital floor were not so fortunate. All three died: one was 19 years of age, another 28, and the other middle-aged. At least two of them would have had a strong chance of surviving with a bone marrow transplant, which is successful about 70 percent of the time. If there were substantially more registered donors in Brazil and in world donor banks, leukemia would be a far less dreaded disease and tens of thousands more would survive it every year. And few people realize that it's remarkably easy to register as a volunteer donor of bone marrow: just fill out a form and take a swab of the inside of your mouth (in the U.S.) or a blood sample (in Brazil).

Bone marrow contains stem cells that are the precursors of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. These can be taken from marrow itself (inside certain bones) or, increasingly these days, from circulating blood -- called a PBSC (peripheral blood stem cell) donation.

Bone marrow transplantation is used to treat many patients diagnosed with leukemia (the most common cancer among children), aplastic anemia, lymphomas, and other life-threatening diseases. Around fifty thousand bone marrow and PBSC transplants are performed annually worldwide. The PBSC donations are non-surgical.

A child or adult who needs a bone-marrow transplant must first be matched with a donor, whose bone marrow is compatible with the recipient's. That's the hard part: not everyone can find a donor. About 30 percent are lucky enough to have a genetically matched family member who can donate. For all the rest (70 percent), the odds are 1 in 20,000 (or far higher, depending on your ethnicity) that a non-family member will be a compatible donor.

The U.S. currently has the largest donor bank in the world with nearly seven million donors. Germany ranks second, with three million donors. The U.S., Germany, Brazil, and other countries are connected in the BMDW (Bone Marrow Donors Worldwide) database, which includes around 18 million total donors in 47 countries. The BMDW, founded in 1988, is based in the Netherlands and connects donors with those who need transplants, across the planet.

Once you register as a volunteer, the odds of your being called upon to donate bone marrow in the future are extremely low, less than one in five hundred. But your participation in the program is vital to improving the odds for those who need transplants.

If you are actually contacted to donate, a bone marrow transplant (or PBSC transplant) is not as radical as it may sound. The procedure is simple and relatively painless. Donors typically go home the same day they donate, and lingering aches or pains are typically gone within a few days. Because only five percent or less of a donor's marrow is needed to save the patient's life, the donor's immune system stays strong and the cells replace themselves within four to six weeks.

"Be the Match" is the name of the U.S. registry for the NMDP (National Marrow Donor Program). The NMDP was founded in 1986 and is based in Minneapolis. You can register as a volunteer donor without leaving home. Be the Match will send you a registration kit through the mail, and you simply have to take a cheek swab sample and send it back to them. In the U.S., you must be 18-60 to be a donor; in Brazil, by comparison, the age range is limited to 18-55.

Many leukemia victims (such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has chronic myeloid leukemia) don't require bone marrow transplants to survive. But many people around the world do. As a result of the donor banks, thousands of people with leukemia have survived who otherwise would have died. Registering is easy and you up the odds for victims of leukemia and other life-threatening blood diseases in the U.S., Brazil, and around the world. Rio is hosting the Olympics in 2016. You can do something far more important than any competitor at that event: you can help save someone's life. Just become a registered volunteer.

Other important links for bone marrow donation:

Be the Match: Myths and facts about bone marrow donation

Be the Match: Sign Up As a Volunteer Donor

Brazil's Registry: INCA / REDOME (in Portuguese)

A list of international registries

Salvar uma Vida: tornar-se um doador voluntário de medula óssea (the Portuguese-language version of this blog)

DKMS, (a large bone marrow donor center in the U.S., Germany and Poland)

From Our Partners