How IDF is on front line of war on cancer

By Nathan Jeffay, March 8, 2012
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The Givati brigade take part in an exercise in the Negev

The Givati brigade take part in an exercise in the Negev

In the next month or two, the Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Registry will save its thousandth life. The secret of its success? The Israel Defence Forces.

While Israel's military is best known for fighting terror, it has also quietly been fighting another enemy: cancer. As new drafts get uniforms, pose for mug shots and register for dental records, they are also asked if they are prepared to give a blood sample to Ezer Mizion. The majority agree.

"The moment I got in to the room I agreed, thinking it's simply the chance to give life to another person," recalled Almog Kriel, a 20-year-old soldier from Beersheba who was drafted a year-and-a-half ago. A few weeks ago he received a call saying he was a match and was wanted as a donor. "It felt amazing," he said, adding that the donation process was simple and he was back to his normal routine within two days.

When soldiers like Mr Kriel sign up to the registry, is not just an act of national service, for cancer-suffering Israelis, but rather service for the Jewish people worldwide. Jews are far more likely to find a match among Jews than from anyone else, and Ezer Mizion's 12-year-old registry is international. This means that soldiers may well become donors for diaspora Jews.

"We have expanded what being a soldier means," said Hadassah Somosi, the organisation's director of resource development, in an interview this week. "It's defending the nation, not just in Israel's borders. It's really defending and connecting the Jewish nation."

IDF spokesman Arye Shalicar said that in the six years of the collaboration, more than 190,000 soldiers have donated samples, with 264 successful matches that led to life-saving bone marrow donations.

The collaboration not only extends to integrating blood sample collection during the draft, but also to ensuring that soldiers can donate when there is a match. The army automatically grants the necessary leave for donations, and its enthusiasm is such that it pulled a fighter pilot off the battlefield during the Second Lebanon War to make a donation for a child cancer patient abroad.

But when the idea was first raised with the IDF, it met strong opposition. Bracha Zisser, the founder and director of Ezer Mizion, first contacted top brass after trying unsuccessfully in 1998 to find a match for a young Israeli. She was told that her proposed collaboration raised too many legal and logistical difficulties, until 2005 when Elazar Stern, then head of IDF Manpower, was moved to accept the idea.

With soldiers now providing more than half of the donations overseen by Ezer Mizion, Ms Somosi said the collaboration has exceeded all expectations. "This has really snowballed," she said.

And the really good news is that getting soldiers on board has not only boosted the quantity of donations, but also the quality. "They're young, they're healthy, and transplant centres prefer them," Ms Somosi commented.

    Last updated: 1:32pm, March 8 2012