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Between Friends: Living Donors

It's a trend that's changing transplant medicine. More and more people are willing to donate a kidney or part of a liver - while they're still alive.

The Rise in Living Donors continued...

"Illustrating the altruistic nature of family, friends and even strangers, living donation rates have steadily increased. This increase has helped bring awareness to the critical shortage of organs." says Annie Moore, spokesperson for the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the nation's organ clearinghouse that matches donors to recipients. Consider the numbers: There were 6,618 live donors in 2002, a 230% increase over 1989, according to UNOS. By comparison, there were 6187 deceased donors, people who have died, often in the prime of life in an accident. Living kidney donors now account for nearly 52% of all kidney donors and the number of living donor liver transplants has doubled since 1999, according to UNOS.

Clearly attitudes are changing. A survey in 2000 by the National Kidney Foundation showed that 90% of Americans say they would consider donating a kidney to a family member while alive. That same survey reported that one in four Americans would consider donating a kidney to a stranger. Indeed, UNOS reports that living donors unrelated to the patients increased tenfold between 1992 and 2001.

Battling "The List"

Science can take some credit for this shift. New surgical techniques let doctors remove a kidney through small incisions that leave little scars and are easier to recover from. New anti-rejection drugs let patients receive organs that aren't close genetic matches.

But there has also been a shift in medical thinking. While anti-rejection drugs have been available since the 1980s, until several years ago doctors routinely rejected donors who weren't immediate family members. Placing a healthy donor at any risk from surgery -- no matter how small -- violated the physician's obligation to "first, do no harm," they argued.

So what has changed? It can be summed up in two words -- The List. As medical technology keeps people alive longer and improved transplant techniques offer new hope, the number of people on the waiting list for organs has swelled. Today, more than 83,000 people are waiting -- and hoping -- for an organ, compared to 60,000 six years ago.

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