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How to join the bone marrow registry and donate blood in Tampa Bay

The need is great for people of color.
A volunteer instructs Sheena Silva, 37, and her husband, Peter Silva, 41, while they perform cheek swabs during a Feb. 13 drive-through event in support of 8-year-old Jakobe Washington, who is fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
A volunteer instructs Sheena Silva, 37, and her husband, Peter Silva, 41, while they perform cheek swabs during a Feb. 13 drive-through event in support of 8-year-old Jakobe Washington, who is fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Mar. 11, 2021|Updated Mar. 11, 2021

Every year about 18,000 people across the country are in need of a bone marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Because of disparities in the world’s bone marrow registries, minorities and patients of mixed racial backgrounds face a far greater challenge than their white counterparts in finding a match.

Related: Florida patients of color face barriers to transplants. Is there a simple fix?

Likewise, sickle cell patients — who may need blood transfusions as often as every couple of months — sometimes struggle to find blood type matches.

While roughly 40 percent of the population is eligible to donate blood, only 10 percent of those eligible do.

Experts and advocates say increasing the number of people who join a bone marrow registry or donate blood may address these gaps. Here’s how to register and donate:

Donating blood

Visit oneblood.org and click on the “donate” tab in the upper right hand corner of the homepage. From there, type in your zip code and a list of local Big Red Bus blood drives and donor centers will appear. You can schedule an appointment online.

If you’re interested in hosting a drive, you can book the bus for a blood drive by clicking the “host a blood drive” tab at the top of the homepage.

Joining a registry

Who’s eligible? Those between the ages of 18 and 44 can join a bone marrow registry. The largest one is Be The Match, with 22 million of the world’s 30 million volunteer donors.

How can you join? Live swabbing events occur intermittently. An in-person drive with COVID-19 safety precautions will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 13, at Alfred “Al” Barnes Park for Jakobe Washington, a Punta Gorda boy battling leukemia. The park is at 2902 N 32nd St. in Tampa.

Those interested can join Be The Match for free without leaving home by visiting join.bethematch.org/kobe.

On the website, the process includes:

  • Completing a brief health history.
  • Opting to have a cheek swab mailed to your home.
  • Swabbing the inside of each cheek for 10 seconds each using swabs included in the mailed envelope.
  • Mail the kit back to Be The Match in the envelope provided with prepaid postage.

This process will add you to the registry, where you will remain through age 60. You will be removed on your 61st birthday.

Individuals who immediately match a patient in need of a transplant will be contacted for additional testing to confirm if they are an ideal match.

About 1 in 430 people on the Be The Match Registry will go on to donate blood stem cells or bone marrow to a patient.

In the vast majority of cases, transplants do not involve the donor entering an operating room. Roughly 90 percent of the time, it’s like donating blood to retrieve stem cells, according to Dr. Michael Nieder, medical director of blood and marrow transplant at Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center.

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A balloon heart is seen at a drive-through cheek swabbing event hosted by Be The Match and the Icla da Silva Foundation at WestShore Plaza on Feb. 13 in Tampa. Organizers hoped to find a bone marrow match for 8-year-old Jakobe Washington, who is fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
A balloon heart is seen at a drive-through cheek swabbing event hosted by Be The Match and the Icla da Silva Foundation at WestShore Plaza on Feb. 13 in Tampa. Organizers hoped to find a bone marrow match for 8-year-old Jakobe Washington, who is fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.

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