Federal Health Minister’s nine-month-old promise to blood cancer ‘burnt up’

Dec 1, 2023

BOOSTING Australia’s bone marrow donor registry is rather simple, as proven by Katter’s Australian Party MP Bob Katter on a limited budget and a few recent initiatives he undertook.

Meanwhile, millions in government funding have led to barely any progress towards increasing donor numbers, leaving the North Queenslander baffled and fuming over bureaucratic holdups.

Australians living with blood cancer require a bone marrow transplant, however the national bone marrow registry is shrinking with only about 140,000 active donors. The Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry estimates about 6000 Australian’s die from blood cancer and blood disorders every year, many waiting for a match.

In February this year, Mr Katter asked the Federal Health Minister if he was aware of the shrinking registry and if a $13m fund which was available, but need to be activated, could be allocated towards marketing to boost donor numbers and introducing cheek-swab kits which simplified the process of registering donors.

Health Minister Mark Butler in response acknowledged that it was an “area of healthcare that had moved too slowly in this country.”

“We know cheek swabs are an effective and economical way of bringing people to the registry… this isn’t a system that’s been introduced in Australia,” Mr Butler said in February.

“So, I’m writing right now to the chair of health ministers to seek their agreement to cut through some of this jurisdictional bureaucratic red tape to do everything we can to clear the way, that is currently denying patients in Australia the best chance to access to this life-saving technology.”

Since his response, little progress has been made towards allocating and allowing the $13m to be used to increase donor numbers, or introducing a cheek-swab policy, initiative or drive.

In a direct update from the Health Minister on Thursday, Mr Katter said he was advised about $3m had been allocated to State Health departments to boost donor numbers, but little progress had been made.

“We’ve burnt up $3m and I doubt whether we’ve had a single swab (and donor) come in from the states,” Mr Katter said.

“If we put it back on the states, we’ll just keep going around and get nowhere.”

However, since February, Mr Katter has participated in three donor recruitment drives. In one case he attended his old university college in Brisbane on short notice and with the help of the president, encouraged over 200 students to complete a cheek swab and register as donors.

Then, Mr Katter was involved in two further cheek-swab drives alongside the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry at two Far North Queensland agricultural shows at Innisfail and Tully.

“It’s that simple, and if you’ve got $13m to work with – surely you can pull together a team accompanied by a health department official to go around complete simple cheek swabs.

“We want to get 1 million people on the register, there’s about over 100,000 at the moment, and it’s estimated with 1 million we could be saving about 700 lives a year.”

Mr Katter said the age for prospective donors should be lowered from 18 to 16 and the funding should be allocated towards cheek-swab recruitment drives which targeted schools, universities, police and military personnel and other similar organisations.

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