Your frequently asked questions, our answers.
1) How long do people have to wait to receive an organ transplant?
That varies according to the simple equation of demand and supply. Because of the limited supply, organs invariably go to those most in need. If you are extremely ill it is more likely that you will receive an organ. There is a priority listing and a formula to determine who will be selected to receive an organ from a donor. The downside of this is that for a person waiting, they often become very sick before they receive an organ whereas ideally we would transplant them before they became so ill that the risk of death or complications became too high. People waiting for a kidney transplant can wait between five and seven years.
People needing liver or heart transplants often need to wait nine or more months. Recipients are assessed for compatibility to the donor (not just blood type, but for six different tissue antigen subtypes as well as general body size – e.g. putting an adult heart into a small child is not possible). Some ethnic groups have rare tissue antigen sub-types making the wait even longer, if they survive. Bone marrow recipients (which are not from deceased donors), require matching of many more different tissue antigen subtypes.
2) How many new organ donors do you get per year on average?
We have seen a 43 per cent increase in donation rates in Australia over the past five years. There are between 350-400 donors per year. Plus there are also about 250 healthy people each year in Australia who donate a kidney (or occasionally a piece of their liver) to a family member or friend. These are called ‘Living donors’. To become a living donor requires meeting an extensive list of medical and psychological criteria.
3) If someone who is listed as an organ donor dies, can their family override their decision to donate?
Yes, families have the final say. Transplant Australia would like to create a community norm so that in circumstances where a person has gone to the effort of registering to be a donor, that upon death, their wishes are honoured by their family, the clinicians and society. This occurs more often when the registered donor has discussed their decision to be a donor with their family prior to death so that everyone is of an understanding and it doesn’t come as a surprise when the family are grieving the loss of their loved one. We term this ‘first person authorization’ but equally it could be called first person respect. It is worth noting that the donor family have no say in who should receive the organs.
4) How many lives can one organ donor save?
On average each deceased donor will donate approximately four solid organs (kidney, liver, heart, lungs, or pancreas). Many more people can receive life-enhancing transplants such as tendon grafts, heart valves or corneas. In total, up to ten people could have their lives changed by a single donor. Think also here about the number of people whose lives are affected by a single organ donor. Each recipient has their own family and friends, so potentially 100 or more people can be directly touched by a single decision to become an
5) What stops people from becoming organ donors?
Generally, people don’t like to think about death or dying and as a result they don’t take steps to outline what they’d like to have happen to their organs when they die.
If you do become an organ donor, it is important that you discuss your decision with your family. Uncertainty, about what you would have wanted to have happen, is often the cause of families refusing to consent because they are asked at a stressful time when they’re grieving.
6) What organs are most commonly donated? Which organs are least donated?
The organs that are most commonly donated are those where there is the greatest need – kidneys. In terms of rare donations occasionally small intestines are donated for people suffering from short bowel syndrome.
7) What is organ is most in demand?
Kidneys, principally because your life can be sustained on dialysis while waiting. For many of the other organs, it is a case of receive an organ transplant or die.
8) Can anyone become an organ donor?
Yes, age or medical condition should not rule anyone out. Leave it for the health care professionals to decide.
9) Are there any donated organs that are gender specific? If so what?
Overseas, there was a rare recent case of a woman who received a uterus transplant, who subsequently gave birth, but this is an isolated example. In general, donated organs can be transplanted into a recipient of either gender.
10) Is there a difference in the number of male organ donors to female donors?
Slightly more males become organ donors because of risk-taking behaviour such as traffic accidents and drowning. However, these only account for approximately one quarter of deceased organ donors. However the single most common cause of death in organ donors is a cerebrovascular accident (a brain bleed).
11) Do you think Australia would benefit from an ‘opt out’ organ donation system?
No because without sufficient information and education our concern would be that too many people indeed would opt out. We need to improve the rate of people registering on the Australian Organ Donor Register and then respect their decision to give the gift of life. Even in countries where the ‘opt out’ system is in place, the family are still consulted about organ donation and can override the decision.