SINGAPORE - It started with difficulty in breathing. Then 18-year-old Sean Goh noticed that his gums bled frequently and even light knocks gave him bruises.
Doctors told him he had an aggressive form of leukaemia which could kill him in months. His only chance was a stem cell transplant to replace his own bone marrow, which would be wiped out by chemotherapy.
His family members were not the right match, but after a four-month wait, one was found at the Singapore Cord Blood Bank.
Cord blood comes from mothers who donate their babies' umbilical cord blood when they are born. It is a rich source of haematopoietic, or blood, stem cells, which can transform into all sorts of blood cells - red, white or platelets - needed by patients with blood cancers or severe anaemia, for instance.
And it is much easier for patients to find a lifeline from this source of stem cells compared with traditional bone marrow transplants as the donor's sample does not have to be completely identical.
Thanks to his infusion, Mr Goh, now 24, is now in the pink of health and completing a course for a diploma in culinary and catering management.
Many others, however, continue to wait.
Every month, 40 local and international patients turn to Singapore's only public cord blood bank at KK Women's and Children's Hospital. But in the 10 years since it opened, the bank has been able to help only around 160 unrelated patients.
Acknowledging that it must do more to increase its sample size, which now stands at about 11,000, the bank is pushing hard for mothers to donate their babies' cord blood, a substance which would otherwise be discarded.
So, on top of catching parents- to-be at pre-natal appointments, it is starting a year-long social media campaign on Facebook, featuring stories from beneficiaries, donors, physicians and transplant centres, and online contests.
It has started the ball rolling by launching a Design A Logo contest for its 10th anniversary. The bank said it hopes that taking a more personal approach would get more mothers on board. It also aims to work with religious organisations to clear misconceptions among devotees that cord blood banking is not allowed by their religion.
About 9 per cent of mothers here have donated their child's cord blood in the last three years, with over 3,780 samples collected in 2013.
The aim is to ramp up donations as much as possible, said the bank's medical director, Dr William Hwang.
The bank here accounts for over a third of the global number of Asian samples, and although most Chinese patients here can find a match, the chances are much lower for Malays, Indians and other minorities since there are much fewer samples from these races.
"Most bone marrow and cord blood registries around the world are of Caucasian origin and not from Asian populations, making it challenging for patients of Asian, minority or mixed heritage to find an unrelated match," he explained.
The chance of a match among siblings is 25 per cent, and even lower with parents. So the bank is relying on mothers such as Mrs Cheryl Doraisamy, 36, a housewife.
Mrs Doraisamy says that raising awareness of the issue would definitely ramp up donations.
The four-time donor was convinced after learning from a nurse at the bank about how cord blood can save lives, and believes more awareness would make the decision to donate easier for other mothers.
"What better way to receive the gift of our child than to give the gift of life to others," she said.
This article was first published on February 22, 2015.
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