When imagining a hero, most of us picture a strong and fearless character in a spandex unitard, as seen in the comic books we read or in the movies we watch. It is therefore unusual for us to witness a 13-year-old girl being called a hero by the media. But if a hero is defined as someone who comes to the rescue of those in need, then Jemima Layzell from England deserves the title. After all, she did save eight lives.
The Telegraph reports that Layzell, who died in May this year from a brain haemorrhage, managed to save the lives of eight people by donating her organs. But this kind of heroism might be few and far between. Organ donations remains an urgent global problem.
Currently, the need for organs is drastically exceeded by the amount of existing donors.
According to the Organ Donor Foundation (ODF) in South Africa, approximately 4 300 South Africans are on the waiting list for life-saving organs. As a nation, we are also far below the international average when it comes to organ transplants, says Dr Willie Koen, head of the transplant programme at the Netcare Christiaan Barnard Hospital. “Organ transplants in Spain are about 40 donors per million of [the]population. In Europe and America it’s about 15 to 20 per million, but in South Africa there [are] only two donors per million,” Koen tells the Cape Argus.
The process of organ donation is still being met with criticism. Apart from religious or cultural beliefs (although most religions do allow organ donation), one of the most controversial issues surrounding donation involves the definitions of life and death, and whether keeping a brain-dead individual on life support to harvest their organs is ethical or not?
There is also the matter of assigning organs to individuals and whether allocation is done fairly. For example, should an alcoholic be entitled to a new liver?
The laws concerning organ donation differ per country, though the two most common systems include the “opt-in” or “opt-out” methods. The opt-in system involves giving explicit consent by, for example, registering online (as is done in South Africa) to declare that an individual would like to become an organ donor. Alternatively, the opt-out system used in many European countries involves the assumption that all individuals in that country allow their organs to be donated unless they explicitly register themselves as non-donors.
Countries using the opt-out system have a higher consent rate than those that employ the opt-in method, resulting in more successful organ transplants and shorter waiting lists.
“Unfortunately, [an opt-out system] may not be a viable solution in South Africa, as the constitution may not allow for it,” says Graham Anderson, principal officer at Profmed medical aid scheme. Anderson does, however, argue that educating and encouraging South Africans to become organ donors could solve the current crisis.
South Africa’s opt-in system differs slightly from that of other countries. Simply registering online and consequently being added to a database is not enough. Here, doctors still require written consent from family, as stipulated by law since 1983.
Apart from this, the process of becoming a donor is rather simple. Once registered online (with the ODF), prospective donors receive an organ donor card which must be filled in and kept in their wallets. Donors also receive a sticker to put on their ID and driver’s licence.
Despite the decision being a personal one, the ODF recommends discussing the matter with family and asking them to honour your wishes, as it not only makes the process easier but also allows family members enough time to come to terms with your decision when the time comes for your organs to be donated.
Perdeby spoke to Taryn Gingell, Gauteng’s project manager at the ODF and also to Jan Rossouw from the National Tissue Bank of the University of Pretoria to find out whether or not they believe students are educated enough about organ donation. “Definitely not,” says Gingell. “No, not at all,” agrees Rossouw. “From conversations with the public, I came to the conclusion [that] there’s much confusion and misunderstanding regarding this subject,” Rossouw continues.
An effort to raise awareness is taking place via social media platforms such as Facebook. News24.com reports that in May, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to help connect organ donors on the social-networking site with people in need of life-saving transplants by allowing members in the United States and Britain to indicate on their timelines that they are organ donors. In the case that they are not, links are provided to official organ donation registries providing them with the option to sign up.
“We think that people can really help spread awareness of organ donation and that they want to participate in this,” says Zuckerberg. “And that can be a big part of helping [to] solve the crisis that’s out there.” ProfMed.co.za reports that in these countries, 100 000 users signed up to become organ donors shortly after the announcement was made by Facebook.
To find out more about becoming an organ donor visit www.odf.org.za or call the ODF toll free on 0800 22 66 11.
Photo: Taila Casquinha