National register aims to increase organ donors

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The Independent Online
A NATIONAL computer register of organ donors was launched by the Government yesterday, in an attempt to boost the number of transplant operations carried out each year and save hundreds more lives.

New donors can register by completing a Freepost form available from post offices or their general practitioner. People applying for new or altered driving licences will also be sent the form in addition to the organ donor card, which has been included for several years. From next April, people registering with a new GP will be able to send their donor 'intentions' to the register via local Family Health Service Authorities.

Julia Warren, of the United Kingdom Transplant Support Service Authority in Bristol, which will hold the register alongside the national database of patients waiting for an organ, said the new scheme was to complement, not replace, the organ donor card scheme. 'The register is now up and running and waiting for people to send in their written requests to join it,' she said.

More than 300 hearts, 500 livers and 2,500 corneas are transplanted in this country each year, but the demand for organs far outstrips supply. A total of 5,700 people are currently waiting for organs: 4,976 for kidneys, 282 for hearts, 173 for hearts and lungs, 164 for lungs and 112 for livers. In 1993, 126 people died waiting for a heart, or heart and lungs, and there were 59 deaths among patients who needed a new liver.

The number of organ donors per year is small because organs are usually taken only from patients who have died in intensive-care units. In addition, about 30 per cent of all families asked by doctors to agree to donation of a relative's organs refuse to give their consent. The success of the seat-belt campaign has also reduced the number of organ donors; donors from fatal road accidents fell from 29 per cent in 1989 to 19 per cent in 1993. In addition, medical advances mean that more people are being kept alive to benefit from a transplant, intensifying demand further.

Ministers have been aware of the shortcomings of the present organ donor card scheme for some time. A feasibility study by the Department of Health had shown that a national register would boost donor numbers. They felt they had to endorse the register after a pounds 1m television campaign to urge people to carry donor cards failed to increase numbers substantially.

Tom Sackville, the Health minister who launched the register, said it was virtually unknown for relatives to object to organ donation when they knew the deceased wished to donate.