We recently paid an invoice for $215, being the annual storage fee for our daughter's umbilical cord blood that was harvested at her birth and is now held for us at CordBank's purpose-built cryopreservation facility in Auckland.

It's a weird bill to receive. We're paying for the storage of some biological matter we've never seen, we've (thankfully) never used, we hope never to need and, honestly, we don't quite understand.

From memory, in 2003 it cost about $1,800 to have this precious cord blood collected, couriered, tested and frozen. Now it's $2,900. The premise as pitched by CordBank is that "[y]our baby's cord blood provides a rich source of stem cells that are the only perfect DNA match for your baby, should he or she ever need a transplant."

I'll admit we didn't research this opportunity as well as we could have. I was otherwise engaged. I had to furnish a nursery, knit bootees and buy a crib. I sought labour advice from homeopaths, acupuncturists and breathing experts, hired a portable birthing pool - and went to Ponsonby-based weekly yoga classes for pregnant people in which we were asked to close our eyes and imagine our bodies opening up like a flower.


But the point is that pregnancy was a very busy time. In response to our casual enquiries about the new cord banking service, my obstetrician indicated that it probably wasn't a silly idea. Kevin and I then did our heads in with the what-ifs. What if our baby ended up needing the cord blood? What if we hadn't stored it? What if we never forgave ourselves? What if our short-sighted frugality turned into a decision we would regret forever? By the time we'd had this conversation more than twice it seemed easier just to sign up. At its essence it struck us as being a form of insurance - and, like many kinds of insurance, it was almost a grudge purchase rather than something we fully embraced.

A 2005 NZ Medical Journal article entitled Private umbilical cord banking: a biological insurance of dubious benefit! said that CordBank was storing 2,400 lots of cord blood. So how many of the 2,400 children (and let's remember that's an old figure; it's likely to be much greater today) have been reinfused with their own cord blood? CordBank's website says the total is three.

In other words there's a fairly low chance of any child needing his or her own cord blood. In fact, it's estimated that the chances of someone using their own umbilical blood to treat a life-threatening illness lies between 1:10,000 and 1: 200,000. So logically a gambler would perhaps choose to risk those odds, to dispense with the expensive collection and storage procedure.

But try telling that to the families of little Frances and Maia, two Kiwi children who have benefited greatly thanks to their parents having the foresight and spare cash to secure their futures via CordBank. I'm sure they'd do it again in a heartbeat.

According to the NZ Medical Journal piece, nearly all of the more than 3,000 cord blood transplants reported internationally have been from a matched relative or unrelated donor. In many cases using one's own cord blood (an autologous transplant) is not effective; it's using either a matching donor's or family member's cord blood (an allogeneic transplant) that can pay dividends. It's a crucial distinction - and one I initially failed to grasp.

Ultimately it's a dilemma for expectant parents: not the well-heeled ones who'll perhaps merely sacrifice the equivalent of a Louis Vuitton handbag for the privilege and not the fiscally challenged ones for whom cord blood banking isn't an option. It's those who fit between the two extremes who have to make the tough decision - at a time when they may be transitioning down to becoming a one-income household, a time when they can no doubt envisage many far more tangible ways of spending the best part of $3,000.