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Marrow Matches for Minorities Are Harder to Find

Minority Volunteer Donors Needed


Updated August 02, 2009

Minority matches are harder to find

African Americans can have a hard time finding a donor

Photo © Getty Images/Digital Vision

There are several bone marrow and stem cell donor registries in the United States, the largest of which is the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) which lists more than 6.2 million donors. Although the NMDPs Registry has a diverse pool of donors, whites are by far the largest group, represented by more than 3.1 million donors.

NMDP Registry Donors as of 12/2004:

  • Whites -- 3,167,307
  • Hispanic -- 547,034
  • African American -- 490,603
  • Asian/Pacific Islander -- 429,177
  • Multiple Race/Other -- 160,905
  • American Indian/Alaska Native -- 74,716
  • Decline/Unknown -- 1,415,542

The Problem

When a person volunteers to be a donor, his or her particular blood tissue traits, as determined by a special blood test (histocompatibility antigen test), are recorded in the Registry. This "tissue typing" is different than a person's A, B, or O blood type.

A person needing a bone marrow transplant (recipient) needs to receive marrow from someone whose tissue type is close to his/her own type. Because tissue types are inherited, similar to hair or eye color, it is more likely that the recipient will find a suitable donor in a brother or sister. This, however, happens only 25 to 30 percent of the time.

If a family member does not match the recipient, the Registry database is searched for an unrelated individual whose tissue type is a close match. It is more likely that a donor who comes from the same racial or ethnic group as the recipient will have the same tissue traits. For African Americans, this is particularly true, as some African American tissue types are rarely found in donors from other ethnic backgrounds and may be unusual, even among other African Americans. Therefore, if the group of potential donors being searched is small, the likelihood of finding a match will also be small.

Reaching Out to Potential Minority Donors

In 1993, the NMDP started four educational and recruitment programs to recruit potential donors from diverse racial or ethnic groups: The NMDP also has international outreach initiatives in 19 countries around the world.

Obstacles to Volunteering

Privacy issues: The NMDP recruitment programs address common concerns that individuals have about volunteering to become marrow donors, such as concerns about giving out personal information and about giving up a part of one's body (bone marrow), even though it will regenerate itself in a few weeks.

Cost of tissue testing: Potential donors also may be concerned about the cost of testing for tissue traits ($52 to $96, depending on what tests are done by what lab). Many minority donors are not aware that all or part of a volunteer's tissue typing cost may be covered by a patient's family, community group, corporation, or a group sponsoring a donor recruitment drive. Any money paid to cover costs is tax-deductible. Some states have required private insurance companies to cover donor screening tests. State health plans, though, don't cover costs. Therefore, the cost of testing may prevent low-income people of all backgrounds from registering.

All of these issues need to be addressed in order to increase the number of minority donors in the Registry. Also, scientists need to figure out ways to get more unrelated donor matches to work, so that those donors who are available could be used.

Are You Willing?

If you'd like to become a volunteer donor, the process is straightforward and simple. Anyone who is between the ages of 18 and 60 and in good health can become a donor. There is a form to fill out and a blood sample to give; you can find all the information you need at the NMDP website. You can join a donor drive in your area, or go to a local donor center to have the blood test done.

Note: The author has been a registered donor since 1993.


Arden-Smith, Tara H. "With few donors, blacks thwarted on marrow match." The Boston Globe 30 Jul 2001.

"2004 Biennial Report of the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry." National Marrow Donor Program. Apr 2006. National Bone Marrow Donor Registry. 20 Jul 2007 <http://www.marrow.org/ABOUT/Publications/2004_Biennial_Report/PDF/biennial_report_2004_2.pdf>.

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