Organ donation is a necessary public good

Manitoban legislation for a new opt-out donation system is a step in the right direction

Photo by Asha Nelson.

Organ donation is one of the biggest issues facing Canada’s healthcare system.

Long wait lists often cause people to wait years in order to receive the organs they need, forcing them to live uncomfortably for years at a time. From having to go in for dialysis, or needing to be hooked up to oxygen 24 hours a day, people are living in ways that are individually burdensome and are a drain on our society’s healthcare system.

The clear solution to these issues is organ donation. Unfortunately, less than 20 per cent of Canadians have made arrangements to donate, even though over 90 per cent of Canadians say they support organ donation. This means we have an incredibly long list of people waiting for organ donations – over 4,500 in 2014 – with hundreds of those people dying each year.

One of those people was Joshua Weekes. He was a seven-year-old boy from Richmond, B.C. In early 2016, at the age of six, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia and underwent several blood transfusions and rounds of chemotherapy. Despite this, he still required a bone marrow transplant. After multiple donor drives across British Columbia, and a campaign that raised close to $40,000, a donor was never found, and Joshua passed away on Jan. 12, 2017.

In one of the richest countries in the world, and as a pioneer in healthcare, Canada should not have hundreds of people dying due to a lack of donors. Though the number of organ donations increases every year, the need increases as well. This leads to more people requiring donations than there are available donors.

To understand just how important organ donation is, you have to understand how positively impacted people are who receive donations. One single person who donates their body has the potential to save the lives of up to eight people, and significantly benefit the lives of as many as 75. And with modern science, survival rates after transplants are very high – between 80 and 95 per cent of recipients recover well in the first year following their transplant.

Why, then, are there still inadequate numbers of donations every year? It could partially have to do with a deceased patient who planned to donate having their wishes blocked because their family was not made aware – an outcome that happens about 20 per cent of the time nationally and as frequently as with nearly every second donor in Manitoba. It could also be that the system is failing Canadians and needs major reform.

One person who has his eyes on that reform here in Manitoba is independent member of the legislative assembly Steven Fletcher. He is set to introduce a new bill, The Gift of Life Act, to amend Manitoba’s current legislation, The Human Tissue Gift Act. Specifically, Fletcher wants to change the opt-in laws we have in Manitoba surrounding organ donation to an opt-out system.

Currently, you can check a box on your health card or go online to join the organ donation registry – a process which has seen abysmally low numbers. Only about 19,000 have registered online, and only 1.1 per cent of the population have formally registered. Fletcher’s new amendment would require one to opt-out of such a list.

As an overwhelming 95 per cent of Manitobans express support for organ donation, this should not be seen as something negative. With over 278 people passing away while waiting for an organ, like Joshua Weekes did earlier this year, it is time to see a significant change to the way organ donations are handled.

As the bill goes public, some misconceptions have emerged. One issue is that the new bill could be seen as an example of over-inflated bureaucracy with the government becoming unnecessarily involved. However, the government already tells us what we can and can not do with our deceased bodies. Even scattering ashes in many areas is now illegal due to health concerns.

Role of government aside, bringing a new law into effect that has the potential to save thousands of lives by increasing the number of organ transplants should be a non-partisan issue.

One of the biggest misconceptions is the idea that this amendment will take away a citizen’s right to choose whether they donate. This is simply not the case. The amendment includes wording to allow those not comfortable donating their organs to refrain from doing so. The three easy ways in which someone can clearly state their objection to being a donor are through the registry website, through a written document signed by the person who objects and delivered to their physician, or stating the objection orally to at least two witnesses in the time of their last illness.

The amendment will be discussed and debated on Oct. 31, then voted on two days later, on Nov. 2. If you would like to see a transformation in the way our province addresses these life-changing issues, please contact your local member of the legislature to see if they will be supporting this bill. It is imperative that we reject the misconceptions, and address this issue if we want to continue the prairie legacy of being a leader in healthcare.