National Toddler Matching Stem Cell Search Comes to Winnipeg, Highlights Shortage of Black Donors

An Alberta father is in Winnipeg this weekend as the national search for a matching stem cell for his two-year-old son with cancer continues – and he’s raising awareness of the desperate need for black stem cell donors along the way.

Ezra Marfo was born in Lac La Biche, Alta., in 2020 and was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia the following year, his father, Jacob Marfo, said.

Ezra went from being a happy, stocky baby to being unable to lead a normal life due to numerous medical treatments.

The toddler is currently in a Calgary hospital as his father helps search for a potential donor as a stem cell transplant is needed as part of Ezra’s treatment, Marfo said.

« [Ezra’s] life is limited to the size of a hospital crib,” he told guest host Keisha Paul during a Saturday interview with CBC. Weekend morning show.

The child is currently « OK, [but] not in the best shape. We take it day by day, » Marfo said.

Marfo donated his own stem cells after he was found to partially match his son. However, a full match is needed now, as Ezra has since relapsed.

The national search has been or plans to stop in Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, Marfo said.

Registering to become a potential stem cell donor is a quick and painless process, which involves a cheek swab.

Three swab drives to try to find donors took place in Winnipeg on Saturday. A fourth will be held Sunday, from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m., at the Church of Pentecost, 375 Salter Street.

People can also register online to receive a home test kit.

While anyone between the ages of 17 and 35 can donate, Marfo said she is specifically looking for donors of African descent.

Marfo and his family are from Ghana, and a matched donor is more likely among those with a similar genetic background to his son, he said.

The problem is that less than one percent of people on the Canadian stem cell registry are of African descent, according to Canadian Blood Services.

Marfo said Canadian Blood Services could better serve ethnic minorities by letting people know that even if they can’t donate blood due to a history of malaria or other reasons, they can still donate plasma and stem cells.

« Canadian Blood Services needs to do a lot of education in its minority world. They’re not doing that right now, » he said.

« That’s what I’ve heard from so many people in African and Caribbean communities – they feel distressed, » he said, adding that he would like to see more emphasis on education targeted for various communities.

Every donor matters

Kennedy Armah is a nurse who volunteered at one of the Saturday swab drives for Ezra.

She thinks the Canadian stem cell registry for black donors is so small because there isn’t enough knowledge about donating blood or what is needed.

Armah also said Ezra’s situation is not unique.

« Ezra is not the only one in such a situation. There are many Africans who are in similar situations, » she told Radio-Canada in an interview on Saturday.

Every donor matters, she said, and the swab drives for Ezra are a way to raise awareness in the African community in Winnipeg and Canada in general about stem cell donation.

It’s a sentiment that Ezra’s father echoed, encouraging people to sign up as donors.

« Not only are you doing this for Ezra, you are doing this for the hundreds of thousands of black people who are waiting to find a match in the stem cell registry. »

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to stories of success within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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