Monday, May 16, 2005

Have a baby, save a life

By now most women, pregnant women at least, have heard about cord blood banking. Fetal blood is rich in stem cells, those magic, yet-to-be-knighted entities that can develop any number of ways, depending where they end up. A vial of your stem cells, if you had one, could hold the answer to your health crisis, be it leukemia or a successful kidney transplant.

The blood in a baby’s umbilical cord is usually (we’re talking hospital birth now; homebirth is a different story) thrown away with the placenta. For a substantial fee, however, some companies provide you with the means of collecting and storing it indefinitely.

Viacord, one of the companies that collects cord blood, charges $1,650 for the collection at a single birth (multiples are more) plus a $150 shipping fee. Then they require a $125 annual storage fee. That’s $4,050 for the collection and storage of your child’s blood until she reaches 18 and becomes the owner of her samples.

The pitch Viacord makes is that $4,050 is a small price to pay if your child contracts any number of horrible diseases that could be cured with stem cells. $4,050 could save your child’s life.

True. But how many children will actually end up needing their stem cells? Very few. Viacord makes $4,050 for sending you a cardboard box and some collection vials and then storing these vials on about 4 cubic inches of freezer space. Imagine what you could make at home leasing out the ice cube tray in your Kenmore.

Interestingly, a British birth advocacy group has voiced concerns about the collection process. They say that cord blood collection may take priority over assessing the mother’s and baby’s health. They also worry that the preoccupation with getting blood collected will get in the way of parents’ first gauzy bonding moments with the baby.

Again, minor points if the baby later develops leukemia and is saved by her stem cells. We can not assume, however, that an additional procedure comes without costs.

I was at a birth where the family had elected to store their baby’s cord blood. The midwife had only done one other collection before and spent large chunks of the mother’s pushing time reading over the rather complicated directions about how, when and where to collect the blood. The instructions referred to two vials but only one was in the kit. In between pushes the mother and father were volleying concerned questions to the midwife about what was missing from the packet. The dad left the mother’s side to dig out the company’s phone number.

When the baby was born, he was given to his mother. The midwife and nurse turned their attention to collecting the cord blood. The family had asked about whether they should let the cord stop pulsing before cutting it, which they’d heard about in their childbirth class, but the midwife said she was supposed to collect the cord blood sooner than that.

I was sent to call the company and let them know the baby had been born. I can’t remember now if a representative was to come pick it up or if the parcel was overnight mailed to them. Because cell phones aren’t allowed on the delivery floor, I was out of the room when the mom delivered the placenta, when she latched the baby on for the first time, and when they announced his name to the room. I was doing what they wanted me to do, so that was fine. But the cord blood collection added a definite element of tension and distraction to the air.

The U.S. government is planning to start a public cord blood bank. Families can donate their child’s blood to a general pool rather than privately storing. This will provide access for many more sick children – at least those with health care coverage – to potentially life-saving therapies.

A federal cord blood bank doesn’t resolve the potential complications of collection. It is a step toward equalizing access to the benefits.


Anonymous Judy said...

I think a government program would probably lead to more consistency in the collection process and more familiarity with it, so the concerns you mention would become less problematic. I only attend high risk deliveries, and haven't seen a cord-blood collection yet.

11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saved my second son's cord blood back in 1999. My oldest, born in 1996, didn't have the option. I think the collection fee at the time was around $900 and we pay $95 per year for storage. The company is CBR in California. Thankfully, we haven't needed it, and I'd be intrigued with a national cord blood bank. My husband, who is a physician, wants to cancel the storage now that our son is a little older. I won't let him because with all the stem-cell research going on, it might prove very useful to us or someone else someday. I recommend it, although I think the price you quoted is a little steep. It has given me some peace of mind.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Sage Femme said...

I think it just goes to show that all babies deserve to keep their own stem cells. That cords should NOT be cut until after the birth of the placenta.

This stuff is big business that makes money off people's worst fears.

Private banking is odd. Public banking I wouldn't have an issue with, but I don't trust what plans people have with stem cell research. It always feels smarmy.

1:03 AM  

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