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Campaign urges black donors to step up

College students in Pittsburgh will use their hands and feet to get out the word that Pennsylvania needs more black organ donors.

"Stepping" blends dance and chant with rhythmic slaps as a means of storytelling that is a tradition in black fraternities and sororities. The decades-old art form will be the centerpiece of an event at 8 tonight in the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown.

"Step Up to Speak Up" is part of a statewide Donate Life campaign by the Department of Health through its two organ procurement organizations -- Gift of Life in Philadelphia and the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, or CORE, in Pittsburgh. It aims to raise awareness about the importance of organ and tissue donation for blacks and to inspire more blacks to become donors.

"I was unaware of the statistics ... and the need in the African-American community until recently," said Victoria Byrd, 20, who heads New Beginnings Ministries, a religion-based student organization at Duquesne University that features choir, step and mime ministries. Byrd, a junior, and two other step performers will participate.

"This is something that we as young leaders have the opportunity to address," she said.

Blacks constitute 11 percent of the state's population but 32 percent of Pennsylvanians awaiting organ transplants. Of 8,061 people on waiting lists for organs in Pennsylvania, 2,551 are black, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Nearly all blacks on the lists -- 89 percent of them -- are awaiting kidney transplants.

Blacks make up 30 percent of the nation's dialysis population, a trend that is mirrored in the Pittsburgh area, said Dr. Jerry McCauley, medical director for the kidney and pancreas transplant program at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"The rate of organ donation among African-Americans has gone up some recently, and that's good ... but there's still limitations on the use of certain organs because of the histories of hypertension, diabetes and other kidney diseases in the community," said McCauley, the former chair of the Diversity and Minority Affairs Committee at the American Society of Transplantation.

Many blacks stay on waiting lists for organs longer than whites because of the difficulty of matching tissues and because blacks generally cannot afford health care comparable to whites, McCauley said. Some patients wait five years for a match.

Jamiliah Beverly, 14, of Garfield has waited 10 years to receive a bowel, liver and pancreas transplant. To raise awareness about her case, students carried a torch for her through the Torch for Life program organized by Step By Step Organ Transplant Association, a Canadian nonprofit.

"There's a huge gap between the need and the people who actually receive organs they need," said Holly Bulvony, a CORE spokeswoman. She said people donating and receiving organs do not need to be of the same race, but the likelihood of successful transplants increases among members of the same ethnic and racial groups.

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