The Medical Minute: National Minority Donor Awareness Week 2012

By John Messmer

Every 10 minutes someone is added to the list of those needing an organ transplant. Every day, 18 people die for want of an organ. Currently about 115,000 people are awaiting an organ; 45 percent are white, 29 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian. This racial differential is important because a transplanted organ must be a close genetic match with the recipient.

Although all people are considered equal, our tissues are different, just as our skin tones differ. Organs are not matched by race, but an organ is more likely to be a good match if the donor is the same race.

In 2010, 67 percent of donors were white, 16 percent black, 13 percent Hispanic and 2.3 percent Asian. If you are a person of color in need of an organ, your prospects of a match are considerably less than for whites.

This is a problem people of color can solve -- by signing up to be organ donors. One donor can potentially help many people, since tissue can be used in addition to entire organs, like the heart, kidneys, liver and lung. Anyone can sign up to be an organ donor -- you need not worry whether you qualify; that decision is made at the time of your death. A person’s treatment is identical, regardless of donation status.

There is no cost to the donor or the donor’s family. Most major religions support organ donation, and you can have an open casket, as the incisions are not visible. Every state provides access to register, often during driver’s license registration and renewal. Registration information can be found for every state at http://www.organdonor.gov/becomingdonor/stateregistries.html on the web.

Some people leave part of their estate to help others, and that is a terrific act of kindness. But money cannot do much for those who need an organ. Organ donation is something all of us can do. It’s a quite a legacy to know you may help many people when you are gone. And if you are non-white, your gift is even more precious because of the great need.

John Messmer is an associate professor of family and community medicine at Penn State College of Medicine and a staff physician at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

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Last Updated August 02, 2012