By Eve Lacroix

As of the 1st of January 2017, every French citizen is automatically on the organ and skin graft donor list, following a government vote to change donor legislation in August. The EU estimates 86,000 people are waiting for suitable organ donations, and that 16 of these people die each day. When celebrating the European Day for Organ Donation on September 9th, the Council of Europe highlighted the issue of a lack of organ donors. One person agreeing to become an organ donor can save up to seven lives. As it is easier to automatically sign people up as organ donors rather than running low-response information and appeal campaigns, this fantastic initiative expects to save a record number of lives in France. Under the new legislation, if a French citizen does not wish to become a donor for personal or religious reasons, they can opt out through a simple online application.

Since November, the organisation Agence de la Biomédecine has been informing the French public on the new legislation with radio and TV ads. A particular effort has been made to target young people, for example through an ad campaign that mimics a horror film. The official Organ Donor website announced that in 2014, 3.3% of donors were 17 or younger, 27.8% 18 to 49. The organisation hopes to discourage younger populations from opting out of the automatic organ donation list.

Up until the 1st of January, French doctors and surgeons had to consult next-of-kin to allow their deceased relative’s organs or skin to be donated. Because of this, the largest issue facing organ donation in both France and the UK is family members refusing to allow donations on behalf of their deceased relative. Whilst family members aren’t necessarily aware of their relative’s stance on organ donation, in a third of cases they refuse. Organ Donation Scotland estimates that family members who are aware of your wishes to become an organ donor are twice as likely to accept. However, some families refuse to let their relative become an organ donor in spite of their wish to become one.

26% of donation waiting list patients are BAME, compared to just 2% of registered donors

This is not the first legislation of its kind in the EU. In Wales, The Human Transplantation Act 2013, functions on a similar “deemed consent” system in which citizens must opt out to not be considered as organ donors. Scotland has the highest number of organ donors who have spontaneously signed up in the UK, with 43% of its population on the NHS Organ Donor Register. Between 2015 and 2016, the UK saw its highest rate of organ donation and transplantation in recorded history. The consent rate from relatives for donating organs stood at 62% in 2014-2016, as opposed to 57% in 2012-2013. Whilst this is a positive step, doctors still estimate that the current consent rate is too low and are aiming for an 80% consent response in 2020.

Another issue facing UK organ donors are the low rates of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) donors. 26% of donation waiting list patients are BAME, compared to just 2% of registered donors. As Sally Johnson of NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) explains, “Most successful transplants come from donors who are a close match to the person receiving the organ. This is usually from within the patient’s own ethnic group.” Bigger efforts must therefore be made for information and appeal campaigns to reach BAME populations in the UK.


NHS Organ Donor Card. Credit: Unity Health

NHSBT, which handles the organ donor registration list, has been considering tougher legislation in the UK. Johnson has suggested that it is no longer necessary to consult the families of people who have signed up to become organ donors in the UK. Speaking to the Guardian on the ethical quandary this may pose, she said: “People who join the register want and expect to become organ donors. We do not want to let them down. We have every sympathy for families – and of course we do not want to make their grief worse. We think this will make what is a hugely distressing day easier for them, by reducing the burden on them.”

To fix the issue of long organ-donation waiting lists and save lives, the UK must consider similar legislation to Wales and France. In the meantime, if you are a British citizen and would like to start the year positively, consider signing yourself to become a donor here.

Featured Image via MedGurus

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