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Organ donation - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Organ donation is the process of a person donating their organs for transplant. These are given to someone with damaged organs that need to be replaced.

An organ transplant may save a person's life, or significantly improve their health and quality of life.

The need for donors

Between April 1 2011 and March 31 2012, 3,960 organ transplants were carried out in the UK thanks to the generosity of 2,143 donors. However, there are always significantly more people waiting for an organ transplant than there are suitable donors. For example, in November 2012, more than 7,593 people were still waiting for transplants.

Read more about waiting times for a transplant on the NHSBlood and Transplant (NHSBT) website.

There is a particular need for more people of African, African-Caribbean and south Asian ethnicities to join the Organ Donor Register. This is because donation rates among these ethnic groups are low.

Black people are three times more likely to develop kidney failure than the general population, and the need for donated organs in Asian communities is three to four times higher than in the general population.

There is no age limit to becoming a donor. A person's physical condition, not age, is the deciding factor. Specialist healthcare professionals decide in each case which organs and tissue are suitable. Organs and tissue from people in their 70s and 80s are transplanted successfully.

Most people waiting for a donated organ need to have a kidney, heart, lung or liver transplant. One donor can help several people because a single donor can donate a number of organs, including:

Tissues that can be donated include:

  • the cornea (the transparent layer at the front of the eye)
  • bone
  • skin
  • heart valves
  • tendons
  • cartilage

All donors have the choice of which organs and tissues they wish to donate. Read more about what organs can be donated.

How to donate

The NHS Organ Donor Register is a confidential national database that holds the details of more than 19 million people who want to donate their organs when they die.

By adding your name to the NHS Organ Donor Register, everyone will be aware of your wishes, making it easier for them to agree to your donation. You can join the register in a number of ways, including:

  • by completing an online form
  • by calling the NHS Donor Line on 0300 123 23 23

Read about how organ donation works for details about joining the NHS Organ Donor Register.

Even though there is a significant number of people on the register, most people will not die in circumstances that allow them to donate their organs. This makes it more important that as many people as possible join the register.

You should discuss your wishes with your family and medical staff so they are aware.

Checking for a match

When an organ becomes available for donation, it is checked to make sure it is healthy. The blood and tissue type of both donor and recipient are also checked to ensure they are compatible. The better the match, the greater the chance of a successful outcome.

People from the same ethnic group are more likely to be a close match. Those with rare tissue types may only be able to accept an organ from someone of the same ethnic origin. This is why it is important that people from all ethnic backgrounds register to donate their organs.

Types of donation

There are three different ways of donating an organ. These are known as:

  • donation after brain stem death
  • donation after cardiac death
  • live organ donation

These are described below.

Donation after brain stem death

Most organ donations are from brain stem dead donors. This means the donor has been confirmed brain stem dead following a severe brain injury. The circulation is supported by artificial ventilation until the donated organs have been removed.

Heartbeating donations have a high success rate because the organs are supported by oxygenated blood until they are removed.

Donation after cardiac death

Organs and tissue can also be donated after cardiac death. In the UK, almost all donors of this type are people who have died in intensive care from severe brain injuries, but who are not quite brain stem dead.

In these cases, the organs must be removed within a few minutes of the heart stopping to prevent them being damaged by a lack of oxygenated blood.

Live organ donation

A live organ donation usually involves one family member donating an organ to another family member. The relative is usually blood-related, most commonly a parent, although it could be a partner.

Following changes in the law, it is now possible to be an altruistic donor. Altruistic donors are unrelated to the patient but become donors as an act of personal generosity.

Kidney donations are often made from living donors, as a healthy person can lead a normal life with only one working kidney.

Read more information about living donation.

Medical Review: October 17, 2012
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