Opt-out organ donation system could boost low eye banks

Post date: 
Tuesday, 9 January 2018
Image of somebody undergoing eye surgery

At the end of last year, Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, launched a major public consultation on plans to introduce a new opt-out system for organ donation. 

In the proposed new system people won’t need to register as an organ donor. The public have been called upon to share their views to help decide how the new system will work in practice.
In 2016 to 2018 there were 1,169 deceased organ donors and 3,293 transplants in England. While this was the highest ever rate of organ donation, there are still more people waiting for transplants than there are organs available. 
In the proposed system, people would automatically donate their eyes unless they have stated otherwise. One person’s corneas can save – or even restore – the sight of up to four people. However, while 80 per cent of people say they would be willing to donate their organs, only 36 per cent actually register to become an organ donor.
Currently, the only substitute for a human cornea, the clear window at the front of the eye, is another human cornea which has been donated at death. The procedure to replace a damaged cornea, known as a corneal graft, can be used for a number of conditions including:
  • Disease or injury that has made the cornea cloudy or distorted, causing loss of vision
  • Scarring of the cornea after infections such as a corneal ulcer
  • Keratoconus (thinning of the cornea that causes a cone-like distortion to develop, usually in young people)
  • Age or inherited conditions that may lead to cloudiness of the cornea in older people.
In response to the consultation, Declan Flanagan, medical director at Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Corneal transplants make a lasting difference to people’s lives but there are not enough donated tissue to meet demand in the UK. Over 3,500 corneal graft procedures are carried out annually in the UK. Despite this many patients wait too long to benefit from corneal grafting. 

“Corneal transplantation techniques have improved markedly in recent years. These improvements give better visual outcomes and have increased the number of individuals who would benefit from surgery if donor material was available. To meet this demand corneal graft material is imported from other countries which is expensive and not an optimal use of NHS resources. This could be much reduced by increasing the number of UK donors.” 

Furthermore, figures from NHS Blood and Transplant show that in the past year around 1,100 families in the UK decided not to allow organ donation because they were unsure, or did not know whether their relatives would have wanted to donate an organ or not.
Flanagan said: “An opt-out system could help many more people to benefit from sight saving treatment. I would encourage everyone to talk about organ donation with their families and have their say in the public consultation to help shape the new organ donation system.”
The organ donation consultation closes at 11.59pm on 6 March 2018. Have your say today.

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