Toddler’s need for stem cell match highlights lack of Black donors


Ezra and dad Jacob Marfo

An Alberta father is in Winnipeg this weekend as a national search for a stem cell match for his two-year-old son with cancer continues — and he’s raising awareness about 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 next year, said his father, Jacob Marfo.

Ezra went from being a happy, chunky baby to being unable to live a normal life due to extensive medical treatments.

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

The child is currently “OK, [but] not in the very best shape. We are taking it day by day,” said Marfo.

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

The national search has been to, 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.

While anyone aged 17 to 35 can donate, Marfo said they are specifically looking for donors of African descent.

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

The problem is that less than one per cent of the 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 informing people that even if they cannot donate blood due to malaria history or other reasons, they can still donate plasma and stem cells.

“Canadian Blood Services need to do a lot of education in their minority world. They are not doing that at the moment,” he said.

“That is what I’ve heard from so many people from African and Caribbean communities — they feel grieved,” he said, adding that he would like to see more focus on targeted education for diverse communities.

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’s not enough knowledge about blood donations or what is required.

Armah also said that Ezra’s situation is not unique.

“Ezra is not the only one in such a situation — there are a lot of Africans who are out there in similar situations,” she said.

Every donor counts, she said, and the swab drives for Ezra are one way to create awareness about stem cell donations among the African community in Winnipeg and in Canada at large.

That’s a sentiment Ezra’s father echoed, encouraging people to register as donors.

“Not only are you doing this for Ezra, you’re doing this for the hundreds of thousands of Black people who are waiting to find a match on the stem cell registry.”