`We are looking for cancer warriors'
Along with thousands of other pupils, Ayesha Siddiqui walked through the school gates yesterday to start her final year of primary school. But the 10-year-old won't just be looking forward to the usual learning challenges - for Ayesha, who suffers from a rare form of leukaemia, the new school year could also mean a chance at saving her life.
Ayesha's family has been instrumental in helping to launch a pilot in Glasgow of an education programme by charity Anthony Nolan. The charity, which matches potential donors to people needing a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, is already running the Register amp; Be a Lifesaver (Ramp;Be) scheme in England, but this is the first time it has been introduced in Scotland.
With Ramp;Be, volunteers visit schools to deliver presentations to 16- to 18-year-olds about bone marrow, blood and organ donation. There is also the option to have a follow-up event to allow young people to join the register. This is always done at least a few days later to allow pupils to research their options and speak to their family and peers.
Ramp;Be meetings have already been held at Rosshall Academy and St Paul's High School - leading to 19 pupils joining the register - and further visits are planned for Bellahouston and Shawlands academies. Ayesha's mother Noreen Siddiqui has ambitious plans for the programme. "We want to get into every school in Scotland and my husband and I will be on hand to help with that," she said.
Amy Bartlett, Anthony Nolan's regional register development manager, said the main focus was to bust myths about stem cell donation and to inform young people of the difference they could make. "A lot of people think it is a very intrusive process, when in reality for many people it is like giving blood," she added.
Ms Bartlett said the organisation was targeting young people aged 16-30 because the chances of a successful transplant were much higher in these cases. When choosing which Glasgow schools to visit first, she added, the proportion of young people from ethnic minorities had been a consideration because of the under-representation of that group on the register.
Ayesha was first diagnosed at Easter in 2011. Being from a mixed-race background worsened her odds of a match and, four years on, no donor has been found. Her mother told TESS that while Ayesha had "managed to do OK with chemotherapy", there was no denying the seriousness of her illness and the urgent need for a donor. "We know that at some point we will need a bone marrow transplant," Ms Siddiqui said.
Ayesha's mother, a senior marketing lecturer, and her husband, an oncology consultant, first got involved with Anthony Nolan about a year after Ayesha's diagnosis. Having already raised pound;200,000 for the charity, they were keen to help get the message out in a more strategic way.
At this point, former first minister Jack McConnell helped to set up a meeting with Glasgow's education director Maureen McKenna. She told TESS: "We should not shy away from these types of opportunities and I am delighted that Glasgow is being used as a project pilot that could then be rolled out."
Ms McKenna said the scheme was about "equipping our senior pupils with the correct information about bone marrow donation". The city had a unique and diverse cultural make-up, she explained, adding that the pilot was "not a blatant sales pitch for donors - this is essentially about educating young people about how to make important decisions that we all need to take at certain points in our life".
Ayesha, pictured right with her mother, is excited about what P7 will bring for her. "Already, all she is talking about is prom," Ms Siddiqui said. "The reality is that I do not know if she is going to be around for the prom. As a mum, all I can do is let her live. I don't want anyone going through what we are going through. We are looking for cancer warriors."