HHS kicks off plan to increase organ donation

Tuesday, April 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Department of Health and Human Services launched a major new effort to boost organ and tissue donation Tuesday, including a partnership with businesses to promote donations among their workers.

HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson kicked off the campaign the day after his department reported that donations from people who died rose by less than 3 percent last year. Thompson noted that one person dies every 84 minutes waiting for a transplant.

``That's not right in this great country of ours,'' he said.

Thompson arrived at his post with a hard-line reputation on the issue of how to distribute donated organs. Rather than distribution, however, Thompson has focused on the donation side of the equation, constantly encouraging his audiences at speaking engagements to sign donor cards.

His ``Workplace Partnership for Life'' will encourage businesses and unions to promote donation, giving them ideas and chronicling their efforts on a new Web site. Seventeen companies and one large union, the United Autoworkers, have signed on, and HHS hopes others will follow suit.

The initiative includes a new national donor card that backers hope will give transplant officials a stronger case for proceeding with donation even if the family is reluctant.

Thompson also promised to create a national medal to honor donor families, as he did as Wisconsin governor, and he said HHS will create a model curriculum on donation for use in driver's education courses.

Thompson also ordered a review of the potential for donor registries where people's wishes are recorded electronically in hopes of informing families and hospitals should they die. HHS has also asked Congress for another $5 million for organ donation next year, a 33 percent boost.

Until now, most of the effort to increase donation has been channeled into media campaigns that encourage people to talk to their families about donation. HHS also has required hospitals to report deaths to local organ banks so transplant professionals can identify potential donors and approach their survivors.

But these efforts have produced only tiny increases over the past several years. In the 1990s, the number of patients on waiting lists grew five times as fast as the number of transplant operations.

The organ donation data for 2000, released Monday, found that donations from those who have died increased by just 2.7 percent last year, after an even smaller increase in 1999.

Meanwhile, the list of waiting patients is growing fast. Just last month, the United Network for Organ Sharing announced that the list had topped 75,000. By this week, it was already at 75,863.

The long wait helps explain a big increase in organ donations from the living, which jumped by 16.5 percent last year, the largest increase on record. More than 5,500 people gave a kidney or, less commonly, a piece of the liver, HHS said.

The number of living donors has been growing more quickly than the number of cadaveric donors for a decade, but the gap was particularly striking in 2000, with the number living donors increasing six times as fast as cadaveric _ or dead _ donors. Living donations already account for nearly half of all donors, and at this rate, they will outnumber cadaveric donors within a year or two.

The vast majority of living donations are kidneys, since most people have two healthy kidneys but need only one for proper function. Last year there were also 344 living liver donations in which surgeons remove a part of a liver for transplant and each piece grows into a whole organ.

For kidneys, research over the past few years has proven that living donations, even from people who are not close relatives, are just as successful _ if not more so _ than kidneys from people who have died.

That's because the donor is typically quite healthy, and the transplant can be planned more carefully. The donated kidney is usually outside the body for a half hour or less, allowing it to begin functioning in its new body more quickly. And laparoscopic surgery, by which the kidney is removed through a small incision, has reduced the pain and recovery time for the donor.

But it's the long wait that has encouraged many patients to look to family and even friends for organs, said Dr. Patricia Adams, president of the transplant network. ``When you have to tell patients the wait is going to be three or four years, you say, `I'd look around and see who might donate a kidney.''