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Umbilical Cord Blood Donation: What Every Expectant Mother Must Read

By Dr. Gulshan Harjee Email By Dr. Gulshan Harjee
February 2012
Umbilical Cord Blood Donation: What Every Expectant Mother Must Read

What: Like bone marrow donation, umbilical cord blood donation is lifesaving and noble. Cord blood is the blood drawn from the umbilical cord and placenta after a baby is born. Until about 20 years ago, this blood was considered waste material and discarded. However, it was discovered that cord blood contains stem cells that can be frozen for use in treatment of several types of cancer, as well as genetic and other immunological and hematologic conditions—approximately 80 different types of ailments now, and perhaps many more in the future. And cord blood is not related to embryonic stem cells, so there is no ethical controversy about its use. However, even now, most expectant mothers do not know the value of this cord blood—here is your chance to learn about this simple, life-saving initiative!

Why: The need is great. Of the thousands of patients a year who are diagnosed with diseases that are treatable only with a blood stem cell transplant, 70% do not have a matching donor in their own family and must depend on the generosity of strangers. And in 2007, for example, only 60% could find a match. Most donations in the past came from bone marrow and blood donors, but now cord blood can be a big help because, with cord blood, a perfect match is not needed.

Ethnic minorities in particular have a harder time finding a donor match, so cord blood collection, especially from their community, is of great help to them.

Where: When you donate to a public cord blood bank, the blood is available for people around the world through the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) and other international networks. About 185 hospitals in the U.S. participate. In Georgia, DeKalb Medical Center, Henry Medical Center, and North East Georgia Medical Center participate. A list of participating hospitals is available at http://BeTheMatch.org/donatecord. Patients delivering their babies at non participating hospitals may donate via one of the banks listed at http://BeTheMatch.org/cord-otherhospitals; in Georgia, call 800-869-8608.

How: Since 2005, federal legislation has supported the National Cord Blood Inventory, which is a registry of available cord blood units, and has provided funding to increase the number of cord blood donations, especially among minority groups.

In Georgia Senator David Shafer sponsored GA Bill 148, ‘Saving the Cure Act,’ in 2007. Also called “Keone‘s Law,” the Bill is named in honor of Keone Penn, a young man from metro Atlanta who in 1998 was cured of sickle cell anemia by an umbilical cord stem cell donation. He continues to enjoy a normal life.

More than 30,000 successful umbilical cord blood donations have been documented worldwide. Cord blood has a much lower incidence of rejection, does not require a perfect and complete HLA type matching, and is more quickly available than a bone marrow donation. Collection of cord blood is much simpler and without risk to the mother or baby. The maternal medical history is detailed and a blood sample may be taken ahead of time to check for any infectious diseases, particularly hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, and other viral illnesses. If there is a living sibling waiting for a transplant, the free Related Donor Cord Blood Program is used.

Due to the small quantity, cord blood is usually limited to use in very young children. Adults and older, larger children require traditional bone marrow transplants.

Although public banks are subject to international accreditation and FDA regulation, there is controversy about private banks. Their marketing focus is on preserving a child’s own umbilical cord blood cells for later use by himself or a close relative; however, such use is rare and one’s own cells will generally not be needed. In public banks they may be more useful. Private banks charge anywhere from $500 to $2200 and an additional annual fee of $150. Processing at private banks varies, and some have had bacterial contamination and inferior concentration of cellular material.

When: Talk to your doctor ahead of time. If you are going to a nonparticipating hospital, arrangements should be made at least 12 weeks ahead or by the 34th week of pregnancy. At participating hospitals, you may be able to give consent at the time of admission.

Minority communities are especially encouraged to participate in this safe, simple, and noble initiative to save lives. I have personally witnessed reunions of donors and recipients, and I must say that there are few things more powerful that one can do for humanity—and it costs nothing!


[Gulshan Harjee, M.D., is a board certified internist in private practice with an emphasis on prevention. Please email your health and medical questions for consideration in this column to: gharjee@comcast.
.  The material in this column is of a general nature, and must not be construed as specific medical advice. This column rotates monthly along with the Fitness Lifestyle column by Aarti Patel.]

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