[FOUNTAIN]Cord offers a lifeline

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[FOUNTAIN]Cord offers a lifeline

For a long time, our ancestors observed the tradition of wrapping a newborn infant's umbilical cord in a clean cloth and storing it in a wooden case. Inscribed on the lid of the case was a Chinese character meaning longevity. On the back of the case, they recorded the date of birth of the baby. Some people put their babies' cut nails and hair in the cases along with the cord. They believed that keeping a baby's navel cord in the house would bring them good luck. Some mothers prayed for their children to have good luck at important events, touching the case.

The umbilical cord is a string of life that links a mother and her baby. It usually falls off from a baby seven to 10 days after birth. As Koreans have opened their eyes to modern medicine and science, most families throw away the cords. In fact, it is not easy to keep one. Even if it is kept in a wooden case to protect it from the contact with air, it decomposes. Some families kept their babies' cords for 20 to 30 years, but they threw them away after their children were grown, or, more often, they lost them somehow.

Did Adam have a navel? If the Bible is right, there is no reason for Adam, created by God, to have had a belly button. He must not have had an umbilical cord because he was not born. But the Adam on Michaelangelo's painting, Genesis, has a navel, while God is breathing life into him. Experts say that the Renaissance maestro painted a navel on Adam's belly to make him resemble a human being.

These days, interest is growing in keeping umbilical cords, as some medical companies are talking about preserving the blood in the cords. There are news reports that some celebrities and members of the Korean national soccer team that played in the World Cup games in June have stored their babies' cord blood at these institutions. Obstetricians extract blood from umbilical cords and recover about 25cubic centimeters of stem cells in the cord blood. The stem cells are then frozen at about 200 degrees below zero centigrade.

The stem cells are used when a baby with leukemia or anemia needs a stem cell transplant. Unlike bone marrow transplants, umbilical cord blood transplants are far more successful because the stem cells match exactly with the baby. The first surgery to transplant cord blood was carried out in France 20 years ago.

Cord blood banks have been established in Korea to supply donated cord blood to those in need as well as a blood bank for families that want to preserve cord blood for their babies. There should be measures to use cord blood to save the lives of poor children who need a donation.

The writer is a JoongAng Ilbo editorial writer.

by Choi Chul-joo

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