The organisers targeted three hundred donors. Over six hundred turned up. Danny Whyte, 35, was diagnosed with leukaemia in April 2004. Although he underwent an initially successful course of chemotherapy and was given the 'all clear' in January of this year, a six-month check-up in June revealed a relapse – and he spent another four and half months in hospital.
Now, a blood stem cell transplant is Danny's last hope – yet none of the potential donors on the worldwide register is an appropriate match. Someone who has Danny's exact same tissue type needs to be found in order for the transplant to take place; a simple operation which could save his life.
Danny, CEO of Osu-based IT firm, Whytsys, was forced by the disease to return to live in the UK where he can get treatment. Last week he returned to Ghana to search for such a match, and to launch a new bone marrow register – the first of its kind in black Africa. The only other register in Africa, which lists potential donors who may be called upon to provide life-saving blood stem cells to leukaemia patients, is in South Africa and consists almost entirely of white donors.
“Many people in Africa don't even know what leukaemia is,” Danny said in an interview with The Statesman Saturday. “And people think that bone marrow transplant is to do with drilling into bones or amputating limbs – we need to educate people here about what a simple procedure it is, and how it can help save people's lives.”
In January 2005 Danny set up the DWIB Leukaemia Trust (Ghana), along with Ivor Burford, a Jamaican former leukaemia patient, with the aim of increasing awareness of leukaemia in the West African sub-region and creating access to effective diagnostic and treatment resources. Most of all, it aimed to set up the first bone marrow register in West Africa.
Since then, Danny has of course discovered that he is himself in need of a donor – and the last few weeks have seen an extensive media campaign appealing to Ghanaians to come forward and offer blood samples in the hope of finding one which could match Danny's.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday of last week saw centres set up around Accra for Ghanaians to register as potential bone marrow donors, a process which involves giving a teaspoon-size amount of blood as a sample, which will be tested to identify the tissue type.
The results of this preliminary blood test will then be stored on a database, before, if a match is found, registered participants may be asked, weeks, months or even years later, to undergo more detailed tests and/or to donate blood stem cells, which are found in the circulating blood stream.
Bone marrow is found in the centre of all large bones and is where primitive blood cells, known as blood stem cells, are produced. These cells can be collected via a sustained needle on a blood cell separator machine, in a painless process which takes 3-4 hours.
Only a complete 'match' can be used, however – and the chances of a black or mixed-race leukaemia patient finding a donor are currently only about 1 in 100,000; compared to a 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 chance of a white leukaemia patient finding an exact bone marrow match.
This is because so few blacks are registered, and because tissue type is ethno-geographically determined, inherited like eye or hair colour, as Danny explained: Only Africans can donate to Africans, and the problem for Danny is that very few people of African origin have ever registered as potential bone marrow donors.
Of the 10 million potential bone marrow donors worldwide, 9.3 million of these are of European origin. The other 700,000 is the combined number of black, Asian and mixed-race potential donors.
However, the numbers are slowly increasing, and the DWIB scheme aims to further this increase. In the UK before 1996, less than 600 black people had entered the register in the 24 years of its existence; this number was exceeded in just three days in Ghana last week. By close of day on Friday, with another whole day to go, 472 people had already given blood samples.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive,” according to Danny. “People seem glad to know more about it, and proud to show off their plasters where they have given blood samples,” he said.
He is hopeful that the extensive media coverage of the issue, and the experiences of people who have donated, will help to “de-mystify” the issue and prompt more people to respond.
In the UK, the number of black Brits registered has risen to 18,000 since the foundation of the Africa Caribbean Leukaemia Trust in 1996 – set up by Orin Lewis and his wife Beverley when their son, also called Daniel, was still searching for a bone marrow donor three years after being diagnosed with leukaemia. The two have been in Ghana, helping to launch the first black African bone marrow register.
A donor was eventually found who saved young Daniel's life; a 45-year-old African-American women, living in the US. “She was our knight in shining armour, she gave our son something we never could,” according to Beverley. Now, they hope that the launch of a West African bone marrow register will give similar hope to Danny Whyte, and Africans with leukaemia all over the world. The more people who register, the more likely it is that Danny Whyte and people like him will be able to get the treatment they need.
In seeking to explain the overwhelming response so far to the initiative in Ghana, Mr Lewis said that Ghanaian people had warmed to Danny as “one of their own”. “People have been passionate about trying to save him,” Lewis told this reporter. He described the potential of the project last week as “frightening” in its scope:
“We have unleashed a monster,” he said – going on to talk about the longer-term goal of the project, to set up a testing and treatment centre in Ghana and to have registers in other West African countries which would feed into the Ghanaian database. This, in turn, would become part of the worldwide list of donors.
However, the major obstacle to success remains funding; and both Whyte and Lewis stressed the absolute necessity of attracting donations and support if the project is to continue.
If more centres are to be set up around the country, if testing facilities are to be developed here (Each of the blood samples collected in the last few days will be sent back to the UK for testing, at the cost of £50 (¢800,000 per unit), if hospital treatment is to be improved, and donors found to save the lives of people like Danny Whyte, support and sponsorship is vital.
Also of major interest is the fact that the bone marrow bank can serve others suffering from sickle cell anaemia, too. Sickle cell is a hereditary chronic blood disorder common among people of black African descent; also found in the eastern Mediterranean, parts of the Gulf, and in northeastern India. It is characterized by distortion and fragility of the red blood cells, which are lost too rapidly from the circulation. This often results in anaemia. Worldwide, 100,000 babies are born with the disease annually. Those born in developing countries are unlikely to survive for long.
Bone marrow transplantation can provide a cure for sickle cell anaemia, but the risks (a fatality rate of 10% and a complications rate of 20%) are so great that it is only an option for the severely ill, doctors warn.
For more information, or to donate, visit www.dwib.org, or call 021 763361.