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The Straits Times says

Life-saving gift is best form of altruism

The shortage of organs, tissues and blood for those in dire medical need is an issue that will increasingly haunt the nation's conscience. The reasons are often linked and all too apparent. For example, obesity among children and young adults is on the march and will push up the rate of diabetes, which in turn can cause kidney disease. Worryingly, kidney failure is reaching pandemic proportions here: about five people on average lose the use of their kidneys each day.

That means the average wait for a kidney transplant might get longer than the current nine to 10 years. Those in desperate need of a liver or heart transplant generally wait one to two years. Concurrently, the healthcare system has to meet increasing blood demand as a result of a growing and ageing population.

Faced with the sad imbalance of supply and demand, a legislative answer was sought. The Human Organ Transplant Act facilitates the donation upon death of the cornea, heart, kidney and liver of all who have not opted out of the scheme. And the Medical (Therapy, Education and Research) Act enables those who wish to donate beyond the four organs to actively make a pledge. Laws, of course, are necessary but not enough. Critically, what must be overcome are daunting social obstacles that deny precious organs and tissues to those suffering from illness or injury.

Cases of potential donors with serious head injury or brain haemorrhage are illustrative as brain death, which is permanent and irreversible, is not easy for family members to accept when the patient's body is still warm to the touch. Organs retrieved while the heart is still beating offer the best chance of saving someone else's life. But the strong feelings of kinfolk often impede the activation of the transplant process for which time is of the essence. Doctors working in intensive care units might not adopt a proactive approach for this very reason.

There are various views on how to get more donors, like offering monetary compensation. This is problematic as it might lead to exploitation of those in desperate need of money and could be "an affront" to those giving altruistically, as an observer noted. Others have suggested giving priority in the transplant queue to those who had pledged their organs upon reaching the age of 21. Another view is that the presumed consent under the law is a weak form of consent to donate and should be reinforced via administrative means by asking people to make a clear choice when they, say, renew a licence. As that choice is indeed a personal one, it falls upon society to help bust the myths that still persist about organ donation.

Medical technology is advanced but the reality is that there might be little or no chance to save or improve the lives of many without a gift that only humans can offer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2016, with the headline 'Life-saving gift is best form of altruism'. Print Edition | Subscribe