There is a large unmet need in South Africa for bone marrow transplantation. Umbilical cord blood (UCB) is an important source of stem cells for the treatment of haematological and non-haematological diseases. Access to the two existing private umbilical cord blood stem cell banks (UCB SCBs) in South Africa is limited to individuals that can afford it, which further aggravates the ever increasing divide between families from different socio-economic classes. The problem is compounded by a severe global shortage of genetically compatible samples, representative of the South African demographics. Establishing a public human UCB SCB in South Africa would provide more South Africans with access to previously unavailable treatment in the form of affordable, genetically compatible stem cells for bone marrow transplantation. A public UCB SCB has many facets to consider, one of which is public preparedness and support for the bank. This was assessed in a social feasibility pilot study which is reported here. In addition to the findings of this social feasibility study, other important considerations for establishing a public human UCB SCB in SA include; (a) testing the samples for HIV and other infectious diseases (required for compliance with international regulatory standards); (b) flow cytometric analysis for enumeration of CD34+ UCB stem cells; (c) mapping of HLA genotypes/alleles; and (d) a study of the economic feasibility of this endeavour.
The social feasibility study was conducted to gauge public preparedness and support for a public SCB through patient interviews and questionnaires. The process was dynamic due to its novel nature for interviewers and interviewees alike. Many obstacles were met and dealt with which lead to the compilation of results discussed here in the form of a pilot social feasibility study. In the South African context, we are faced with unique and rich challenges relating to cultural and religious differences that are further augmented by linguistic constraints, educational insufficiencies and logistical and administrative limitations. Complicating factors encountered during the informed consent process included cultural differences, religious practices, traditions and superstitions together with language constraints and an educational disparity.
Despite many initial obstacles, preliminary results from the informed consent questionnaire were favourable with regard to the establishment of a public UCB SCB. These initial results prompted the revision of the questionnaire and interview process and the compilation of a more succinct and coherent definitive social feasibility study which will form a separate study and which we hope will ultimately assist in the decision of whether or not to establish a public UCB SCB in South Africa. Nevertheless, results from this pilot study appear to be favourable and highlight particular areas which could influence community support for a public SCB. Educating the general public with regard to the workings and benefits of public stem cell banking is the first step in determining the viability of such an undertaking – a unique and rich challenge in the South African context.