By Eleanor Philpotts
Social media. Everyone’s got their opinions on it, whether it’s your sweet little elderly neighbour back home who doesn’t understand why kids these days are constantly attached to their phones; or your JOMEC lecturer who thinks it’s productively changing the face of journalism. Whichever way you look at it, yes it has its downsides, but there are also plenty of advantages, and one of these has been especially clear to see in recent weeks. Thanks to the power of digital, Match 4 Vithiya has accelerated into a bit of a global campaign this week.
Vithiya Alphons is an Optometry student here at Cardiff. Now in her final year, she’d been looking forward to starting her graduate job at Specsavers. Friend Vikoban Sachchi said, ‘Vithiya’s one the most kind-hearted people I know. She’s always looking out for others – she volunteered last summer, her team providing eye tests and glasses to 1,700 people in Moldova – but now she’s in need of help herself.’
24-year-old Vithiya was recently diagnosed with blood cancer Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML), and needs a bone marrow transplant within two months. However, her Sri Lankan heritage means she’s struggling to find a donor, as they must be genetic matches, but the Asian demographic is severely unrepresented on the stem cell register.
Vithiya told the BBC, ‘It was only five days between my first symptom and being diagnosed. My life changed in less than a week.’ After suffering sickness, fever and leg pains, she underwent chemo in Cardiff, before transferring back home to London. However, the leukaemia remained and she was told she’d relapse within a year without a transplant.
As her brother Clime is only a 50% match, Vithiya’s best chance of survival will come from an unrelated donor. But there lies the problem – British-Asians form just 6% of the Anthony Nolan register. White Europeans have a 90% chance of finding a matching donor, while ethnic minorities’ stands at just 40%.
So, Vithiya’s launched an awareness campaign. Although particularly aimed at those from Asian backgrounds, Vithiya and other patients of blood cancer, which is diagnosed every 20 minutes in the UK, are desperate for everyone to get involved. Vithiya’s campaign, found at https://twitter.com/match4vithiya and https://www.facebook.com/SaveVsLife, has amassed some serious attention. Far from being confined to the Cardiff student community, links to its articles have gained tens of thousands of retweets, including from big names like J.K. Rowling, and it’s even spread worldwide. But how can you help here in Cardiff?
Cardiff Marrow has the answer! Marrow is the student branch of Anthony Nolan, the UK’s main bone marrow register, providing lifesaving transplants for patients of blood cancer – leukaemia; lymphoma and myeloma. Marrow’s found in around 40 unis across the country, and the Cardiff society are especially getting behind Vithiya. As well as fundraising and myth-busting, they run regular clinics around uni, where you can take matters into your own hands and join the bone marrow register there and then.
I’m Cardiff Marrow’s Media Coordinator, and was encouraged to start volunteering with them following my own blood cancer diagnosis. While I’m well now, I realised how much patients can struggle to find matches. Anthony Nolan’s national database connects potential donors to patients, by analysing DNA then helping the transplant process to run smoothly if a match is found. But they can’t do this to everyone, unless more people are on the register.
At these frequent recruitment drives, all you have to do to sign up is spit in a tube and complete a form, the criteria being to be 16-30; over 8 stone; and generally healthy. Cardiff Marrow then send off the saliva sample to Anthony Nolan. There’s only a 1 in 1000 chance of you being needed again – but you can’t potentially save someone’s life if you’re not even signed up.
And what happens if you are a match? 90% of cases are peripheral blood stem cell donation, which only takes about 4 hours and is just a bit more advanced than giving blood. It’s a common myth that donating means removing a chunk of your bone – you won’t even need general anaesthetic or an overnight hospital stay, and the only after-effects are flu-like symptoms for a few days. Not bad, knowing you’ve just given someone the chance of life.
10% of the time sees bone marrow extracted from the pelvis, but again you’ll be feeling right as rain before the week’s up.
Cardiff Marrow are always looking for students to sign up. Joining the register only takes 10 minutes, while actually donating is one of the most rewarding things you can do.
Marrow are currently working on a project called Tackling Inequalities. You might also know about Match 4 Lara – the recent campaign of Lara Casalotti, who, like Vithiya, is a 24-year-old student and AML patient struggling find a transplant donor thanks to her ethnic background, until over 10,000 more people were promoted to join the register, meaning she eventually found a match. This further highlighted the Asian population’s unrepresentation on the register, so Cardiff Marrow are teaming up with the Asian Society; Go Global and Sikh Soc. Last Saturday, they ran a clinic at Elements – the Asian Soc’s annual show, which Vithiya herself has performed in – where they were also the official charity.
We’re also liaising with Tamil Soc, which Vithiya was on the committee of, with a clinic at the Go Global showcase on Saturday 12th March, 6:30 in the Great Hall, and Sikh Soc, with bake sales at the Heath this week. Our next big clinic is on Monday 14th March, 10-5 in Main
Building, so come along and give a spit. That is really is all it takes to sign up to potentially save the life of someone like Vithiya.