Monday, 11 April 2011

Help us help you - organ and blood donation legislation.

An article in last week's Belfast Telegraph reported that less than 5000 people from NI have joined the NHS Donor Register since the beginning of this year, a paltry number when placed in context of the reduced number of donors from traditional groups such as road traffic victims and brain haemorrhage patients, who thanks to road safety and medical improvements are more likely to survive their ordeals.

So what influences the decision not to sign up to the register? For some there are personal reasons regarding post mortem organ ownership, however, for others it is the same old story (and one we're probably all guilty of in some aspects of our lives), we simply haven't gotten around to it / never thought about it / can't be bothered [delete as appropriate]. There will also be a fair few people who carry a card, but haven't signed up to the register and haven't expressed their wishes clearly to their family.

I've also heard a few people dismissively state that their organs wouldn't be worth anything due to the fact that they are smokers or drinkers. What few people realise is that in the case of a plentiful register, less than perfect organs still have their use. They can be used for research, or in some cases given to people who's transplants are not life saving but might allow them to undergo treatment for other illnesses. Under normal circumstances they would be excluded from transplant programs or be repeatedly overlooked.

So what of the op out system of donation? Will the future of a successful organ donation society rely on this or at least a comprehensive debate into it? When a person comes of age, should they be automatically added to the register, whereby it is up to them to remove themselves from it if they feel the need? The choice is still there afterall, no one is forcing anyone to donate, and you should be helped in any way possible by your local health adviser (GP, School Nurse etc) to make an educated and informed decision, along with the option to donate to medical research if you so wish.

The British Medical Association (BMA), many transplant surgeons, and some patients' groups and politicians are keen to see Britain adopt a system of "presumed consent", where it is assumed that an individual wishes to be a donor unless he or she has "opted out" by registering their objection to donation after their death.

So it appears the idea has some level of support, but what stands in the way? When opt out has been on the agenda before there have been concerns regarding personal choice, but also the practicalities. For example, seeking the consent of family members could reveal some important family medical history, perhaps not known to the donor, and for this reason many countries that have a 'presumed consent' policy still try to contact families before taking organs.

But it seems that at the moment UK legislation is putting the responsibility to sign up on the would be donor. To me this seems to be making the process of doing a good thing like donation that little bit harder. And that is before we even get to the quite frankly ridiculous limitations currently being imposed on gay men who wish to donate blood.

As if rubbing salt in the wounds of those want to help and adhere to the 'no excuses' advertising jargon, limitations on men with same sex partners were addressed recently, with the ban on giving blood apparently 'lifted'. Read the small print however and you'll find that there is a 10 year no sex clause (read Neue Politik and Stephen's Liberal Blog for responses to this insulting compromise).

Health care is on the election agenda this week in Northern Ireland. I've just outlined two examples that can easily be addressed to your local candidate if this is something that is important to you (it was certainly important to one dialysis patient I spoke to in the Village when canvassing this weekend). The time is here to tell our legislators, help us help.

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