More people in Singapore are donating their skin but there is still a shortage of local donors for those who need grafts after serious burns.
Locally donated skin comprised just 18 per cent of skin transplants last year. The deficiency, thus far, has been met by tissue banks abroad such as the Euro Skin Bank and others in the United States or Canada.
But this means Singapore may find itself short of skin at any point, when these nations have to meet their own needs following crises such as massive fires.
Now, the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), which houses the local skin bank, aims to raise the proportion of locally donated skin to more than 50 per cent in the near future.
Number of skin donors in Singapore in 2013
Number of skin donors in Singapore last year
It said it will continue working with the National Organ Transplant Unit and Health Ministry to raise awareness of the importance of skin donation but gave no further details.
One key challenge is that skin donation is not covered by the Human Organ Transplant Act, under which organs such as kidneys may be harvested unless people opt out.
Interested skin donors must opt in or have their skin donated by their next-of-kin upon death. But relatives often do not feel comfortable doing so.
Last year, 13 of 220 patients admitted to SGH for burns had injuries affecting over 40 per cent of their body, requiring donor skin.
Such a patient usually needs more than what one donor can provide, and yet, there were just three Singapore donors in 2013. This jumped to 18 two years later.
It is a slight improvement over the 71 donors from 1998 to August 2011 - in what has been described as a critically low level.
The uptick could be due to a new transplant tissue centre, said Dr Chong Si Jack, a plastics, reconstruction and aesthetic surgery consultant in SGH.
A merger between the SGH skin bank and the National Heart Centre's national cardiovascular homograft bank, it has allowed transplant coordinators to work together to secure more skin and heart valve donors last year.
Healthy skin is the ideal burn treatment. It acts as a temporary bandage to reduce dehydration and prevent infection.
It reduces mortality rate from 45 per cent to 16 per cent and cuts hospital stays by about 10 days.
When a severe burn victim is admitted, skin grafting is required typically within 72 hours upon removal of the burnt skin. This is why donor skin has to be available at all times.
Dr Chong attributes the low donation rate to lack of awareness. "Many people are not aware that skin can be donated upon death... and that donated skin is life-saving."
Sometimes, next-of-kin do not agree to donate a dead person's skin as they do not know of his or her wishes, or want to keep the body as it is, he said.
Pledges take years to yield donor skin
But, he added, an open casket funeral is possible as skin is usually taken from the back and lower limbs rather than exposed areas. The amount taken can be about the thickness of four pieces of paper, and the procedure causes minimal bleeding.
In Singapore, donor numbers are unlikely to change overnight as a pledge translates into donor skin only years later, said Ms Annabelle Ip, an SGH medical social worker.
Ms Emily Tan, also an SGH medical social worker, warned that while Singapore has a foreign supply of donor skin, this could lead to over-dependence.
"Skin is unlike other organs, where you have a transplant list... burns... can happen anytime."
•Anyone above 18 can complete an Organ Donation Pledge Form (www.liveon.sg) and submit it to the National Organ Transplant Unit.