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Need for Blood and Organ Donors Continues to Grow
Date:2/11/2011

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Feb. 11(HealthDay News) -- Every single adult in the United States is carrying around the raw materials to save at least one life, and possibly more than one.

Donation of organs, blood, bone marrow and even the stem cells contained in umbilical cord blood can help heal tens of thousands of people afflicted with terrible diseases, health officials say.

But the need for most of these donations is growing, not shrinking.

As of Feb. 10, 110,324 people were on a national waiting list for an organ donation, up more than 80 percent from the 59,862 people on the list a decade before, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

"The gap is growing because more people are getting added to the waiting list than are donating," said Mary L. Ganikos, chief of the public and professional education branch at the agency's transplantation division.

Taking aim at the problem, health officials on Feb. 14 -- National Donor Day -- intend to urge people to:

  • Fill out an organ and tissue donation card and register with their state registry for donors.
  • Join the nationwide registry of volunteers willing to donate marrow and blood stem cells.
  • Learn how to donate stems cells from umbilical cord blood after the birth of a baby.
  • Donate blood.

Marrow and cord blood donations are growing in importance. The number of people being healed by blood stem cell transplants is increasing every year, but not enough people are registered to donate bone marrow or umbilical cord blood to provide an adequate chance for every person in need to find an appropriate genetic match, Ganikos said.

Stem cells from marrow and cord blood are primarily used to treat deadly diseases, including leukemia, lymphoma, aplastic anemia and autoimmune disorders. There were 5,228 blood stem cell transplants during fiscal year 2010, compared with 4,820 in 2009 and 2,310 in 2003, according to federal officials.

State organ donor registries have more than 90 million people on their rolls, all told, but Ganikos said that many more are needed because only a small fraction of deaths actually result in a donation. Officials hope to increase the number of registered donors to 100 million.

Currently, only whole blood donations adequately meet the needs of public health, officials report. In 2007, for instance, 15.6 million units of blood were donated, exceeding the 14.4 million units that were transfused that year, according to the National Blood Collection and Utilization Survey Report compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

To close the donation gap in other areas, though, public health officials face a number of obstacles, but the main problem seems to be a lack of widespread knowledge about the need for donations and the relative ease of signing up to be a donor.

This is particularly true of donations of umbilical cord blood, which is rich in stem cells, said Nawraz Shawir, a public health analyst with the government's Blood Stem Cell Transplantation Program.

"There is not enough awareness out there about the possibility of umbilical cord blood donation," Shawir said. "The cord blood usually is discarded, unless the woman is aware of the great potential of this blood to help other patients."

Likewise, many people don't know how easy it is to sign up to be a bone marrow donor, said Nadya Dutchin, a national account executive at the Be the Match Registry maintained by the National Marrow Donor Program.

All a person has to do to become a potential marrow donor is sign a consent form and send in a cheek swab, Dutchin said. Their genetic code will be drawn from that swab and entered into the registry.

Seven of 10 people who need a blood stem cell donation cannot get one from a family member because they are not a close enough genetic match, Ganikos said. When that happens, people are forced to go to the registry to look for an unrelated donor.

Another obstacle to increasing the donor ranks is the presence of an array of misconceptions about organ, blood and marrow donation.

Some people decline to become a potential marrow donor because they believe the donation process will be painful, involving a needle stuck into their bones.

"About 75 percent of the time it's done through a blood draw, just like at a blood drive," Dutchin said. Marrow donors are given a medication that causes their bone marrow to overproduce stem cells, which are pushed into the bloodstream. After five days, the stem cells are collected from their blood, much like what occurs for a plasma donation. The worst a person would feel, she explained, would be a little achy or as if he or she had the flu as the stem cells accumulate in the blood.

Other people believe it's against their religion to donate organs. "Most major religions see it as an act of charity and brotherly love," Ganikos said. "They either encourage donation or leave it up to the individual."

Another misconception to be countered is the notion that hospital personnel would not do everything in their power to save the life of someone registered as an organ donor because they need the donations, said Teresa Beigay, director of special donation projects for the government's transplantation division.

"The donation does not kick in until every effort is made to save that life," she said. "Notification doesn't happen until after death."

Also, people sometimes mistakenly believe that they're too old to donate.

"Some people think when you're over 50, you can't be an organ donor," Ganikos said. "There have been donors in their 90s and recipients in their 80s. We don't want people to rule themselves out. They should register, and let doctors decide after their death if some or all of their organs are useful."

More information

The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration has more on Donor Day.

A companion article has more on how donating bone marrow can save a life.

Frequently Asked Questions

(HealthDay News) -- People thinking of becoming an organ donor usually have a host of questions. Common ones, with answers provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, include:

Who can be an organ donor?

There are no age limits. Donors range from newborns to senior citizens. Anyone younger than 18 must have a parent's or guardian's consent. You do not need to be a U.S. citizen to donate or receive an organ in the United States.

Organ donors are given a donor card and are encouraged to carry it in their wallet. Some states allow the information to be included on a driver's license. In any case, make sure your family knows your wishes. Families sometimes are asked to sign a consent form when it's time for the donation to occur. Others who prospective donors may want to notify include a family doctor, lawyer and religious leader.

Who cannot be an organ donor?

People with certain medical conditions cannot donate an organ. This includes people with:

  • HIV
  • Actively spreading brain cancer
  • Some severe, current infections

What organs and tissues can be donated?

Organs that can be transplanted include:

  • Kidney
  • Heart
  • Liver
  • Lung
  • Pancreas
  • Intestines

People who are living can donate:

  • A kidney
  • Part of a lung
  • Part of their liver
  • Part of their intestines
  • Part of their pancreas

Tissues that can be donated include:

  • Cornea (coating of the eyeball)
  • Middle ear
  • Skin
  • Heart valves
  • Bone
  • Veins
  • Cartilage
  • Tendons
  • Ligaments

Stem cells, blood and blood platelets also can be donated.

SOURCES: Mary L. Ganikos, Ph.D., chief, Public and Professional Education Branch, Division of Transplantation, U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Rockville, Md.; Nawraz Shawir, M.B.B.S., public health analyst, Blood Stem Cell Transplantation Program, Division of Transplantation, HRSA, Rockville, Md.; Teresa M. Beigay, Dr.PH., director, special donation projects, Division of Transplantation, HRSA, Rockville, Md.; Nadya Dutchin, national account executive, Be the Match Foundation, National Marrow Donor Program, Minneapolis


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