Editorial: The bone-marrow battle

Donating bone marrow one of most practicable, non-risky procedures to help patients for whom strangers' donations could be sole chance for survival.

Hospital beds 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Hospital beds 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Not all battles are won in the course of a hard-fought war. Eight-year-old Tal Shitrit of Kibbutz Nahsholim lost his struggle for life this week on the eve of a possible turnaround. He succumbed to the leukemia that had relentlessly attacked him for nearly three years, just when a suitable bone-marrow donor was about to arrive from France to give him a new chance to live.
The uncommonly handsome boy captured the hearts of Israelis during an Ezer Mizion drive four months ago to help find a compatible tissue-type match for what doctors defined as Tal’s “complex DNA composite.”
Intricate genetic mixes are prevalent in this country, a melting pot of diverse extractions and communities.
Although some patients with leukemia or other cancers have a genetically matched family member who can donate, about 70 percent don’t. These patients’ lives depend on finding a donor, often at least partially of their own ethnic origin.
The response to the drive to save Tal was extraordinary. Thousands stood patiently in long queues. Total strangers appeared personally affected by his plight. Adults aged 18-50 gave up valuable time on an ordinary workday and waited their turn without a grumble to fill out long forms and have blood taken from their veins. This isn’t the first such drive, but the outpouring of solidarity surprises the organizers anew each time.
Donating bone marrow is one of the most practicable, uncomplicated and non-risky procedures to help patients for whom the gift of life from unrelated people could be their sole chance for survival.
The ensuing process isn’t simple and entails an evaluation that can take upward of six weeks. Those whose tissue-type isn’t compatible with the patient’s remain potential donors. Having been properly screened and typed, their data is included in the Ezer Mizion bone marrow registry – the world’s largest Jewish bone-marrow donor database – where it stays accessible for future need.
But heartwarming as the unstinted grassroots response has been in every such drive, the fly in this otherwise most excellent of ointments is the need to depend on the generosity of philanthropic nonprofit organizations, such as Ezer Mizion.
The likelihood of finding a donor in existing Israeli registries is calculated at 1 in 30,000. Significantly enlarging these registries is too heavy a financial burden for NGOs to shoulder. The feasible solution is a central public-run registry instead of the existing three (Ezer Mizion, Hadassah Ein-Kerem and, the smallest, at Sheba Medical Center).
For years the Treasury had nixed all initiatives to foot the bill for such an undertaking. Last February, however, the Knesset finally – after an eight-year parliamentary campaign – approved legislation mandating the establishment of an integrated government-funded centralized registry. This should have placed the 460,000 Ezer Mizion samples, Hadassah’s 60,000 and Sheba’s 1,000 in a single framework, geared for expansion.
In proportion to much weightier Treasury outlays, maintaining and enlarging the registry is regarded as an insignificant drop in the budgetary ocean – NIS 5 million annually. Many lives might be saved merely by removing the managerial and financial onus from voluntary organizations. For one thing, this could speed up the discovery of matching donors and thereby offer more rapid help.
Thus far, however, the law notwithstanding, not an agora has been spent on this cause. There is no excuse for foot-dragging. The sooner this strange disinclination to action is ended, the greater the promise for desperate patients like Tal.

Our only solace is that officialdom’s vacuum is filled by a deluge of popular generosity, compassion and cohesion. It’s doubtful that the great crowds of potential donors, who mob Ezer Mizion’s testing teams, could be equaled anywhere else on earth.
Beautiful Israel shines through as if to belie the vilification that is unhappily its lot.
“Israel isn’t merely a nation. It’s one large family, united on all fronts. I am so proud to be one of the family of Israel,” said Yuval Kadosh, father of Amit, whose life was saved in a similar Ezer Mizion drive in 2009. He speaks for us all.