x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Community rallies for young cancer patient

Teenager Nadeen Issa has helped organise a charity walk for a friend who has leukaemia, and hopes the event will raise awareness for more bone marrow donors

Thirteen-year-old Nadeen Issa, who is organising a walk to raise awareness of the lack of bone marrow donors in the UAE, with her mother Rana Matareb.
Thirteen-year-old Nadeen Issa, who is organising a walk to raise awareness of the lack of bone marrow donors in the UAE, with her mother Rana Matareb.

ABU DHABI // It started in New York with a little girl’s limp and subsequent leukaemia diagnosis, with her plight proving to be the inspiration for another young girl to encourage people to donate bone marrow.

Back in June, when Malaq Ali’s parents noticed her limp during their US holiday, they did not think much of it. Then they took her to a doctor and the results were devastating. Malaq had mid-stage leukaemia.

Until then, the six-year-old had seemed perfectly healthy and even after the initial news of her condition, her prospects were reasonably good. If caught in time and treated, 80 per cent of children manage to force leukaemia into remission.

Unfortunately Malaq’s chemotherapy was not enough to stem the cancer – what she needed was a bone-marrow transplant from a matching donor. But when her extended family were screened for a match, none was found.

“When she was in dire need of a bone marrow, when her body could withstand it, they could not find a single match”, says Rana Matareb, a family friend.

They looked further afield, contacting the international Bone Marrow Database Worldwide, a voluntary effort that brings donors together.

The best chance of a match is with a donor of similar ethnicity – and of the database’s 15.5 million registered donors, only 45 are from the Arab world. All 45, though, are registered with the Sharjah Bone Marrow Bank, set up in 2006.

That was when Mrs Matareb’s 13-year-old daughter, Nadeen Issa, decided she had to do something to help.

“I felt really bad,” she says. “It might be me that could have matched with her and that she would have had a higher chance for survival.”

She and her younger sister decided to donate some of their hair to Locks of Love, an American hair bank.

Thanks to their efforts Malaq, who lost her hair as a result of the chemotherapy, is now the proud owner of a wig from the charity.

Nadeen was not satisfied and wanted to do more. “I researched to see if I could do anything to help. I was impressed by the annual Terry Fox walk for cancer, and thought I could do the same.”

She took her campaign to her school, the American Community School in Abu Dhabi, and has now organised a “Circle of Life” walk, due to take place on Yas Island next Saturday. At least 500 people are expected to attend. Among them will be Dr Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim, the Minister of Health. Nadeen met him on May 1 to explain what her initiative is all about, and to her surprise he agreed to attend the walk. “He was so supportive,” says Nadeen. “It seemed like he was so excited about it – and I was amazed that I was meeting with someone that can really make a difference. I was like, ‘whoa!’?”

The aim, she says, is to encourage more people to sign up to the bone-marrow database. “I don’t believe that people don’t care.

If they knew about it, they’d do something.”

Her mother agrees. “If we reach out and get even 45 more people to register, we’ve doubled our capacity,” she says. They hope the walk will help demonstrate enough public interest to make it worth setting up a local screening laboratory, which would allow far more potential donors to be screened and result in a bigger pool of potential matches.

Although Malaq’s prognosis is difficult to gauge, she is weak and bedridden – too weak, perhaps, for a transplant even if a suitable donor were found. “She’s struggling”, says Nadeen.

“I’d hate to imagine another child in Malaq’s place,” says Mrs Matareb. “Shame on us if we can’t help.”

hhamid@thenational.ae