Most people support organ donation, so why don't more do it?

Misconceptions often keep transplant numbers down but an Indian state's decision to honour donors at their funerals is a novel way of promoting a life-saving practice

A surgeon during the UAE's first full heart transplant operation at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi in December 2017. Since then, hundreds of transplants have been carried out in the Emirates. Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi
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Fewer subjects speak to our shared humanity than that of organ donation. Around the world, millions of sick and disabled people linger on waiting lists, seeking a transplant that could enhance their lives or even save them. To donate one or more organs to help a loved one, let alone a complete stranger, is an act of profound social and human solidarity.

But data in several countries indicates that the number of people who claim to be in favour of organ donation is much greater than the number of actual donors. This has consequences: according to the US Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, 17 people die every day in America while waiting for a transplant. In some countries, misconceptions or cultural taboos about organ donation serve to keep donor numbers down, something that literally costs lives. This is especially tragic given the fact that one donor can save up to eight people by passing on organs such as the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and pancreas.

Several governments have tried different policies to increase their number of organ donors, but Saturday’s announcement from Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin that his administration would accord full state honours during the funerals of deceased organ donors is among the more novel approaches. It is a policy that also reflects the seriousness with which the Indian state of more than 72 million people takes the issue.

According to the Indian Journal of Transplantation, Tamil Nadu ranks first in the country for deceased organ donors at a rate that is seven times greater than the national average. Tamil Nadu has introduced other innovative policies to increase donations, such as creating “green corridors” to ensure organs get to hospitals quickly. It is a policy approach that literally saves lives.

Although introducing state honours for organ donors may not be the suitable move for every country, highlighting the profound impact that transplants can have on people’s lives serves to meet the challenge of finding enough organs for those who need them. There are many ways to achieve this: targeted education and public campaigns; introducing presumed consent, where patients opt out of donating rather than opting-in; or creating financial incentives for registered donors such as tax breaks or insurance benefits.

In the UAE, the importance of organ donation is championed by the government. In 2016, the country passed a law allowing organ transplants from both the living and the dead and in 2021, nearly 60 people from 13 different nationalities donated organs, according to figures from the Emirates' National Programme for Organ Transplantation. The UAE has exceeded the global average of donated organs from each donor after death and in January, The National reported how in Abu Dhabi alone, more than 10,000 people of different nationalities had signed up to become registered donors.

This has had a quantifiable impact. According to the UAE’s National Programme for Organ Donation and Transplantation — or Hayat, which means “life” – 111 transplants were carried out this year. Since 2017, more than 460 transplants have been performed.

Each country will take steps that suit it and endeavours such as Tamil Nadu’s highlight worthy intent. Anything that brings more visibility and appreciation to this life-saving and selfless practice is worth considering. Too many lives hang in the balance to not think creatively about it.

Published: September 26, 2023, 3:00 AM