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Health: Bone Marrow Transplants

Volume 703: debated on Thursday 3 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What plans they have to increase awareness of, and the number of people on, the list of potential donors for bone marrow transplants.

My Lords, there are 300,000 donors registered on the British bone marrow register and a further 350,000 on the Anthony Nolan register. The NHS Blood and Transplant service’s current strategy is to maintain the BBMR at its current size and to target its recruitment activity towards underrepresented ethnic-minority groups to increase the diversity of the register, and, with the long-term perspective in view, to educate young people about the importance of becoming donors in the future.

My Lords, given the bravery of Adrian Sudbury who, even in his dying days, campaigned vigorously to improve the opportunities to find life-saving donors for bone marrow transplants, will my noble friend build on the need to talk to our young people in schools and colleges and impress upon them the ease and importance of giving blood, in order to find donors? Will she also build upon the excellent work of the national blood register and the Anthony Nolan Trust to ensure that we produce a comprehensive register, equal in effectiveness to that in Germany in providing matches for such blood donor transplants?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. The promotion of the donation of blood, bone marrow and organs in schools is important. The NHS Blood and Transplant service has developed a set of teaching materials called Give and Let Live and a website to help provide students between 14 and 16 the knowledge and understanding of key issues related to donating. That pack is available to all schools. The Secretary of State met Adrian Sudbury; indeed, he also met the Prime Minister and Ed Balls, who have committed themselves to promoting blood and bone marrow donation in schools. It is planned that a letter will be sent to all schools in September to coincide with the relaunch of the Give and Let Live resource.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in congratulating the Anthony Nolan Trust on the splendid work it has done over the years in this field? Will the Government now support the trust’s ambitious new programme to establish a cord blood donor base to provide material both for therapeutic care and for research?

My Lords, I am happy to join the noble Lord in congratulating and commending the Anthony Nolan Trust as the pioneer in this area. The Government support and are developing a properly funded strategy with the NHS cord blood bank, which already exists. We will be in discussion with the Anthony Nolan Trust about how we make sure that we co-ordinate, although I want to put on the record that with regard to finding donors of bone marrow, the trust and the NHS bank work together seamlessly and in a completely co-ordinated fashion.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the collection sites for cord blood, which is so valuable in treating leukaemia and not just providing an alternative to stem cell research, are in London only. Will she give us an assurance that she will help the Anthony Nolan Trust to ensure that collection sites are spread throughout the United Kingdom?

My Lords, the proposals for the policy and expansion in this area are under discussion. It is an important area because approximately 40 per cent of the donations to the NHS cord blood bank derive from ethnic-minority mothers, therefore greatly improving the chances of finding a match that could lead to transplant. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Department of Health are fully engaged with that discussion, and we hope that we will have some announcements to make fairly soon.

My Lords, in the light of the Minister’s comments on hard-to-reach groups, particularly those from black and ethnic-minority communities, what are the Government doing to encourage those groups to come forward? This is a problem right across not only bone marrow but organ transplant issues.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that question, because she is absolutely right. Over 90 per cent of Caucasian patients can find a match on bone marrow or cord blood registers which could lead to transplantation. That figure falls to 30 to 40 per cent for ethnic-minority groups. The NBS has introduced the one blood campaign to attract more people from BME backgrounds to become blood donors and join the bone marrow transplant register. We have endorsement from the International Islamic Propagation Center, reassuring Muslims that it is acceptable to donate blood. We have partnerships with a number of organisations to work with communities at a local level. A series of short films has been screened on Channel 4 and, under Section 64, we are giving funding to the Afro-Caribbean Leukaemia Trust with the purpose of raising the number of black and ethnic-minority communities donating to the register.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that not only does the Anthony Nolan Trust deserve warm congratulation but so do the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, because they are collaborating in this tripartite arrangement for establishing the cord blood bank, which leads the world in work relating to transplantation and stem cell use in such processes?

My Lords, as ever, the noble Lord tells your Lordships more than I could possibly do. He is completely correct.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Anthony Nolan Trust searches for tissue worldwide and is the hub of Europe? Does she agree that it is an excellent example of a charity working with the National Health Service?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is completely correct. All three separate registries in the UK—the Anthony Nolan Trust, the national registry and the Welsh registry—are linked to a worldwide bone marrow registry. All three have reciprocal arrangements for seeking matches. We have the third largest number of bone marrow donors in the world behind the USA and Germany, and we are helping to lead the world on these issues.