This summer, for obscure reasons, I found myself taking a mandatory St. John Ambulance course in first aid and CPR. We practised on red plastic torsos with bald heads, and we did it very thoroughly. So if a red plastic torso gets into trouble and I am standing by, I'll be able to hobble over and provide help, because I know exactly what is required. Freak out! Throw up! Run around screaming! Faint!
Just kidding. I'd call the paramedics, and then I'd keep that torso going (two breaths, 30 pushes, apply the electric shock paddles, apply them again and this time do it right, push the orange button), and then the paramedics would arrive looking very competent, and they'd take the red plastic torso to the hospital and have it restored to life in a jiffy.
However, if that red plastic torso were a real human being, and if it were suffering from any disease that can be treated with stem cells, that human being might well be out of luck, no matter how good the paramedics and the doctors might be. Those treatable diseases include various leukemias and lymphomas, some kinds of anemia, certain inherited red cell and platelet abnormalities, and some bone marrow cancers and hard tumours. Doctors have developed treatments for these diseases, but in Canada, they are often unable to get the materials they need in time to be effective.
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Canada has a very diverse population: People have come here from all over the world, and there are many aboriginal groups. That means a great deal of genetic variation, and many blood types that are rare in Canada. Stem cells used to treat diseases have to be a match for the patient, or there will be a high risk of rejection. Only half of Canadian patients are able to find matching donors within the country. Another option for them is cord blood: the blood from umbilical cords, often wastefully discarded at birth, but rich in the precious stem cells doctors need.
Until very recently, all cord blood stem cells used in Canada were imported from banks located elsewhere, at a very high cost: an average of $42,000 per unit, with two units required for an adult transplant. People with diseases treatable with stem cells had to wait a long time for donors, and even for cord blood. Many died needlessly. Until this year, Canada was the only country among Group of Seven nations that did not have a national public cord blood bank. That was shameful.
It does have one now, because Canadian Blood Services, a private charitable organization, launched an ambitious plan to build one, and governments pitched in. The goal is to reduce wait times, save lives and provide reliable material for Canadian researchers, using material that would otherwise be thrown away as "medical waste."
So far, Canadian Blood Services has raised three-quarters of the remaining $12.5-million required. Even at that, Phase 1 is complete, and hospitals in Ottawa and Brampton have begun collecting. But the final quarter needs to be raised so the bank can expand in the West.
Some may feel that private enterprise can take care of this need. Already, you can pay to store cord blood in for-profit banks. That's fine for those who can afford it, but what about those who can't? My grandfather was a doctor in rural Nova Scotia during the Depression, making winter house calls on a sleigh and delivering babies on kitchen tables. He treated many who had no money; they paid in chickens, when they could. Our public health service came into being from that background: Public health services should allow care for all, not just the privileged.
And so it should be with cord blood banks. I'm confident that, once they realize the need, Canadians will pitch in and get the bank completed.
In an emergency, I and my red plastic torso training may be all that's available, but let's hope not. I didn't learn how to do stem-cell transplants, so it would maybe be a good idea to support those who did. And to provide them with a bunch of stem cells, too, while we're at it.