Wales leading the way in organ donations, says top doctor

By Owain Clarke
BBC Wales health correspondent

media captionCardiff transplant surgeon Mike Stephens says even a small increase in organ donation can make a significant difference to saving lives

Wales is "leading the way" in efforts to increase the number of lives being saved by organ transplants, according to the Welsh Government's top doctor.

Dr Frank Atherton, Chief Medical Officer for Wales, said a new system of organ donation in Wales has increased public awareness.

He argued that could ultimately result in more donors and transplants.

New annual UK figures from the NHS showed nearly a quarter more patients living in Wales have had transplants.

Altogether, 214 patients living in Wales received organs in the 12 months up to March this year - compared to 174 in the previous year.

This rise of 24% compared to an increase of just 4% across the UK.

But the figures for Wales showed a modest increase in the total number of deceased donors.

Between March 2015 and 2016, there were 64 deceased organ donors in Wales - just four more than the year before. This was a rate of increase of about 7% - similar to the whole of the UK.

The statistics cover the eight months leading up to the introduction of the new system and the first four months since its introduction.

Last December, Wales became the first UK country to change the law to introduce a so-called "soft opt-out system".

It means adults who have lived here for at least a year are considered to be willing to be organ donors if they die - unless they have specifically opted out.

We already know 32 organs were donated from 10 patients who had neither opted in or out of the system in the first six months since the law was changed.

Under the Welsh system, families can object to organ donation if they have clear information that the deceased would not have consented - although they have no legal veto.

However, in practice clinicians have admitted that it is unlikely organs would be taken if that caused distress to loved ones.

The latest figures showed that family consent rates for organ donation in Wales increased from 48.5% to 59%.

Even so, it remains below the UK average of 62% and lags behind the highest rates in the world of around 80%.

'Right direction'

Dr Atherton said the new law has also intensified discussions within families and communities about donation.

But he said it was too early to tell precisely what impact the change in the law has had on organ donation rates.

Dr Atherton said "a full evaluation" would take place next year, and if the results are positive he added that he would consider encouraging other UK countries to consider following Wales' lead.

"We have to be careful looking at just one year's data. But the trend is in the right direction," he said.

"By next year we'll be in a better position to say with certainty what the impact of the deemed consent system has been.

"I speak with the chief medical officers across the UK on a regular basis. When we have good evidence of population benefits it's something I take into the discussions.

"So I'll be looking at the results of the evaluation and I hope this is an area where Wales again can lead the way."

The Welsh Government argued there was still more work to do - in increasing donation rates among younger people and members of black, Asian and ethnic minority communities in particular.

A campaign, Time to Talk, is now focused on getting 18 to 34 year-olds in Wales to discuss their organ donation decision.

An e-mail and letter will be sent to all students who have accepted a place to study in Wales through UCAS but live outside of Wales.


media captionLaura Leigh has 'given three other people a life'

Jason Leigh, from Bridgend, met his future wife Laura while they were on holiday as teenagers.

Laura found out she had cardiomyopathy after her father was diagnosed with the disease and had a heart transplant in 2006. It saved his life and he was able to walk his daughter down the aisle in March 2015.

The couple were hoping to foster and have children of their own when in September last year, Laura, 31, suffered a cardiac arrest at home. Her heart stopped and Jason tried to resuscitate her before the ambulance arrived.

But three days later, with doctors unable to save her, the subject of organ donation came up.

Jason and Laura had previously talked about organ donation, given her father's history.

"Your mind tells you it's a natural act but your heart says this is the woman you've been married to for six months, your best friend, your soul mate," Jason, 31, told BBC Wales.

"You know deep down what's right. At the point, prior to the doctors telling us that she wasn't sustaining life herself, you're in disbelief and we thought Laura might come round.

"There were minute signs; she opened her eyes a few times. If her heart was so severely damaged maybe Laura would be waiting for a transplant, like her father did, like so many people are.

"So I couldn't sit there and have a double standard to such an important thing which could have saved Laura's life if just her heart was damaged."

Jason added: "I can recall the conversation quite vividly with the transplant coordinator. It sounds bad but I can recall him giving the age of the [three] recipients who were all older than Laura.

"But I remember one was a male, 40 plus and something struck me that maybe he could walk his daughter down the aisle."

Meanwhile, the consent rates of black, Asian and ethnic minority communities across the UK was almost half (33.6%) that of white patients (65.8%) - even though a third of all patients on waiting lists for kidneys, for example, come from those communities.

Health Secretary Vaughan Gething said the new statistics overall were encouraging - although it was clear the demand for organs in Wales, like elsewhere, continues to outstrip supply.

For example, there were 192 patients waiting for a transplant at the end of March 2016, with a further 118 temporarily suspended from transplant lists.

Meanwhile, 24 patients died while on the active waiting list for their transplant and a further 58 were removed from the lists because their health had deteriorated too much and many of these would have died shortly afterwards

Mr Gething said: "An increase in the number of people having their life saved or improved by an organ transplant is good news.

"Much of the data in today's report is positive for Wales, showing things are moving in the right direction, but there's still work to do."

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