Everything you need to know about organ donation

There is an average of 6,270 people waiting for an organ transplant in the UK. Across the last 10 years, 6,000 people, including 270 children, have died before receiving the transplant needed to save their lives. 

From spring 2020, all adults in England will be considered potential organ donors, unless they choose to opt-out, or are in one of the excluded groups. The opt-out system does not apply to children under the age of 18 years old. The Government estimates that the new system has the potential to save up to 700 lives a year. The changes in England are down to ‘Max and Kiera’s law’ after Max (11), in need of a heart transplant, was saved by Kiera’s organ donation. Max and his family have campaigned ever since to encourage organ donation. 

Currently, on the UK’s transplant waiting list, 30% of people have been waiting for more than two years. Family refusal is currently the ‘biggest obstacle to donation’, says the NHS. According to recent statistics, 4 in 10 families refuse to allow a donation. This is usually due to religious beliefs or a lack of education and awareness around the benefits of organ donation. 

There are many positive elements of organ donation: one person’s donation can save up to eight lives (donations including a heart, kidneys, liver, pancreas, intestines and lungs). These organ donations give people a new lease of life and the opportunity to do things that they could never do before. Families often take comfort in the thought of their loved one’s organ living on in another, giving them the gift of a fulfilled life. Furthermore, faith and beliefs are always taken into consideration before organ donation goes ahead to make the right decision regarding the donation. 

However, ethical issues around organ donation and the opt-out method have been raised. There is the risk that the change in the law is open to abuse, with the possibility of death being hastened to secure an organ needed by another person in need. Additional concerns have been raised about the mental impact on the deceased’s family if organs are removed without consent from them. 

England’s new law follows Scotland who were granted Royal Assent on 19th July 2019, giving formal confirmation that the opt-out method will become law. In other parts of the UK, such as Wales, their policy is ‘deemed consent’. This means that if you haven’t registered an organ and tissue donation decision, you will be considered to have no objection to becoming a donor. In Northern Ireland, the current policy is to opt-in to organ and tissue donation. 

Though more and more people are donating organs, there are certain communities that are struggling to receive donations. Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities are particularly needed on the register. A quarter of the people on the current waiting list are from these communities, and there are campaigns active to raise awareness. 

A spokesperson for the British Transplantation Society said: ‘As a community we are committed to increasing transplantation opportunities for every person in need of a transplant, and we are continually developing and testing new technologies and techniques to further improve the organ donation and transplantation pathway, as well as continuing to highlight the need for more organ donors. This ongoing effort will allow us to make the best use of each precious organ and lead to the highest benefit for our patients.’ 

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Leia Butler

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September 2021
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