According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), there are currently nearly 120,000 people awaiting organ transplant in the United States (with the Department of Health and Human Services stating that over 50% of those waiting are minorities). Of the total waiting, about 1,760 of them are children. Current policy states that children under the age of 12 must wait until pediatric lungs, kidneys, or other organs become available or can only be offered organs donated by adults once other adults and adolescents on the waiting list have been considered.
That is until recently. Earlier this month, families of two children got set to legally challenge these policies and they received a temporary victory. Judges ordered that the secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services suspend these rules for 10-year-old Sarah Murnaghan of Pennsylvania and 11 year old Javier Acosta of New York City. Both children suffer from late stage cystic fibrosis and face certain death without new lungs. While the two are now eligible for adult/adolescent lungs, they also remain on the top of pediatric waiting lists.
With so few pediatric organs available, the youngest victims of illness needing critical transplants in order for survival often find that receiving an organ can be tougher than any other group. Success rate for adult organs –like lungs – resized and transplanted into children tend to garner the same results as adults who receive transplants.
This changing policy is especially critical for minorities – over half of those waiting to receive organs are minorities, although are disproportionately represented by who the organ donors are. For example, of the more than 11,000 minority patients received transplants in 2011, only about 4,000 of those organs came from minority donors. This is problematic because of the lack of genetic similarities and blood type matches within current organ searches. If blood type and certain other factors don’t match, the body rejects the donated organ and the process can be even more stressful on a patient.
Furthermore, children under the age of 18 require special consent before their organs can be harvested and dispersed to those in dire need. For children like Sarah and Javier, time is of the essence. Javier’s family knows just how critical time can be – Javier’s older brother succumbed to cystic fibrosis as the same age two years ago while waiting for new lungs. While these court rulings are only temporary, they truly highlight the need for more organ donors and the education of the importance of organ donation (one person can save anywhere from 8-50 lives).