Magazine article Insight on the News

A Dearth of Donor Organs

Magazine article Insight on the News

A Dearth of Donor Organs

Article excerpt

Organ donations aren't keeping up with demand. A serious shortage has doctors and politicians searching for solutions, including those in Pennsylvania offering $300 incentives.

The availability of organs for transplant is falling rapidly behind demand as waiting lists grow longer. "The transplant waiting list is growing by 15 percent per year, but the number of donors has increased by just 5 percent per year" says Richard J. Howard, medical director of me University of Florida's Organ Procurement Organization and a professor of surgery at the university's College of Medicine.

He and other experts concerned about the dearth of donor organs and tissue say this shortage has been worsened by the success rate of transplantation. "The problem with creating successful new procedures is that it makes the shortage worse by increasing the number of people who are transplant candidates," says Howard.

And while polls show 85 percent of Americans favor the concept of organ transplantation and 70 to 90 percent know about the need for donor organs, half of the families approached at the time of a relative's death refuse to donate, says Bob Spieldenner, spokesman for the Richmond-based United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS.

The number of organ donors Increased 5.6 percent in 1998. "That was the first substantial increase since 1995, but it still doesn't come close to how much the waiting list is growing," says Spieldenner. "We only did 20,961 transplants last year, about 900 more than the previous year" Yet 1998 ended with 64,423 patients still waiting for transplants. "We were able to do about 1,000 more transplants, but the waiting list went up 10,000. Meanwhile, 5,000 people died while waiting for transplants."

UNOS predicts waiting lists for donor organs -- especially livers and kidneys -- will continue to climb. Given the prevalence of hepatitis C infection in the United States, people wanting liver transplants "could triple or rise fivefold in the next 15 years" says Spieldenner.

Physicians are scrambling to find answers to why some people sign donor cards or agree to the use of a loved one's organs, and why many others say no. The shortage even has prompted some to call for financial incentives to encourage organ donations -- something that's long been considered taboo. (It's illegal to buy or sell organs in the United States under the 1984 National Organ Transplant Act.) Starting next year, at least one state, Pennsylvania, will offer a payment of $300 to help families of organ donors with funeral expenses. …

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