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Giving birth soon? This is why you should consider donating umbilical cord blood

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Among the many decisions mothers-to-be may encounter as they come closer to meeting their little bundles of joy is whether or not they should donate their baby's umbilical cord blood.

A decision to donate, according to medical experts, could save a person's life.

The alternative option?

"It basically goes to the trash," said Susie Joron, the manager of Hema-Quebec's donor and cord blood registry.

She estimates about 25 per cent of mothers currently choose to donate their cord blood -- a percentage Hema-Quebec hopes to boost.

What is umbilical cord blood?

Experts explain umbilical cord blood donations can help people living with more than 80 types of blood cancers and diseases.

One such example is Montrealer Mai Duong, who was diagnosed with leukemia while pregnant with her second child.

The cancer was found during a routine blood test in January 2013.

A few days later, Duong was forced to end her pregnancy in order to start chemotherapy. 

After a desperate international search, the then-34-year-old got some good news: she was a match for an umbilical cord blood donation.

"I'm forever grateful for the donor who stepped up and donated her umbilical cord to a perfect stranger," she tells CTV News. "I benefited from that and I'm so grateful for that mom."

How to donate?

The process to donate is simple, says Dr. Richard Brown, the director of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Division at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), who estimates that less than 10 per cent of the patients he sees choose to donate their umbilical cord blood.

"We give every patient who's planning to deliver here information at the beginning of the pregnancy to try to encourage them to do so," he tells CTV News.

To donate, a mother must first sign up on the Hema-Quebec website and:

  • be in good health;
  • be aged 18 or over;
  • be pregnant with one baby (not multiples);
  • have read the consent form and completed the registration form before the 36th week of pregnancy;
  • give birth at one of the partnering hospitals.

According to the Quebec Health Ministry, there are currently six hospitals across the Greater Montreal area partnering with Hema-Quebec for cord blood donation:

  • Cité-de-la-Santé Hospital;
  • Jewish General Hospital;
  • LaSalle Hospital;
  • McGill University Health Centre (MUHC);
  • Sainte-Justine Hospital;
  • Saint Mary's Hospital.

"These centres have from 3,000 to 4,000 mothers giving birth every year, and about one out of four mothers will donate in those six partner hospitals," said Joron.

She adds the hope is to target hospitals that have the most diverse populations.

"We try to have a good representation of the population," Joron said, noting about 70 per cent of the cord blood bank is from Caucasian donors. "We're always looking to enrich our bank with more diversity as patients that are non-Caucasian have more difficulty finding a perfect match."

Once approved for donation, a mother simply has to give birth, and the doctors will do the rest.

"Unfortunately, not everyone chooses to go down that path, which, to be honest, is a shame because that blood is otherwise simply discarded and wasted," said Brown.

He explains that many doctors now engage in delayed cord clamping.

"Once the baby is delivered, we normally, if everything is well with the baby, allow at least a minute for cord blood and blood from the placenta to return to the baby," he explains, adding there is still usually a good amount of blood left over for donation.

Joron says she understands that soon-to-be mothers often have a lot on their minds, so donating may not be a top priority.

"They want to dedicate as much effort into their pregnancy and we understand that," she said. "What we need to focus on is really providing the information on what it can do: it can save a life."

More specifically, she points out it could save a child's life.

"In Quebec, we've distributed between 15 and 20 units per year but we do have access to over 800,000 units throughout the world to also transplant patients here in Quebec," said Joron. "It has a specific and unique capability and is mostly used for pediatric patients...Most units that we distribute will be used for children."

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