Joburg toddler with cancer highlights need for stem cell donors in SA

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Maddalena Chesworth of Johannesburg was three months old when she was diagnosed with cancer of the blood and bone marrow, known as acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). 

The diagnosis, in November 2021, was made after her parents Alessandra and Norman, who live in Randburg, noticed unfamiliar symptoms. The child’s tummy began to harden.

After seeking medical care Maddalena was referred to the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre for further tests. Two days later, they received the devastating news. Maddalena has since then spent time in and out of hospital and succumbed to opportunistic infections, including Covid-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — a major cause of respiratory illness in children. 

Chemotherapy was initially successful but the cancer returned in June, to the extent that the two-year-old could no longer walk or talk. 

“She had to be placed on chemo once again. It breaks my heart when I see her reaction to being in a hospital because she knows what it means now,” said Alessandra.

Maddalena needs a blood stem cell donor to help her beat the disease, characterised by frequent infections, bruising, fever, bone pain and gum bleeding among other things. 

August 15 to October 15 is recognised as Bone Marrow and Leukaemia Awareness Month. 

The family believe a stem cell donor transplant will give the toddler the “best chance of living out a full and happy Cocomelon-filled life”. 

“I’m asking people to please register so my baby can have a second chance at health and life,” she said. 

Maddalena is one of numerous people across the globe affected by this type of blood cancer, which affects mostly children under the age of 10. Between 800 to a 1,000 children are diagnosed with cancer annually in SA. It is estimated that half of the children with cancer in SA are never diagnosed. 

According to the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) data published in 2020 leukaemia deaths in SA reached 1,464 or 0.32% of total deaths.

With nearly half a million new leukaemia cases reported in 2020 globally, and 311,594 deaths, cancer advocates and medical experts argue it is now more than ever important to raise awareness about the suffering this cancer causes, including the importance of bone marrow donation.

Palesa Mokomele, head of community engagement and communications at DKMS Africa, formerly known as Sunflower Fund, said ALL is the most common blood cancer among children aged two to 10, accounting for 75% of diagnoses. 

“It stems from genetic mutations in bone marrow, causing uncontrolled growth of immature lymphocytes called lymphoblasts. These white blood cells lose maturity and function, leading to reduced red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. This weakens the body’s infection defence despite potentially high white blood cell counts.” 

The Organ Donor Foundation has urged South Africans to register as organ donors, saying the number of donors had taken a knock since 2020 when Covid-19 disrupted medical and transplantation services.

Samantha Nicholls, the foundation’s executive director, operations, said transplantation “is still playing catch-up”. 

“In the world of transplantation, returning to normal will never mean that the catch-up game is over.” 

While the number of donors declined, the number of patients needing transplants have increased.

“The only list that grows at a steady pace is the transplant waiting list and this is an alarming fact. New names of people desperately needing a transplant are added and many names only get taken off the list because the patient has died in the interim. The wait is long and despite the best efforts of all stakeholders in transplantation, it is a continuous, ongoing and never-ending battle of playing catch-up — or sadly, eventually losing the battle,” said Nicholls.

“We know that we can, without any doubt, save the lives of patients waiting for urgent transplants and those whose life would be drastically improved through tissue donation. The more people who register and talk to their families, the more people will be saved.”


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