African Americans on the organ transplant waiting lists of Milwaukee area hospitals are less likely to die than those on the list at the UW Hospital in Madison, according to a NewsBuzz analysis of federal data from the past 15 years. In both cities, however, blacks are less likely to receive organ transplants than whites – and more likely to die waiting.
At these three hospitals, there was a relatively small disparity between the percentage of whites who died (11.8 percent) on the waiting list versus the percentage of blacks who died (12.2 percent) between January 1995 and September 2010. Whites, however, were significantly more likely to receive organ transplants. Blacks seeking organs were only about 80 percent as likely to receive them.
At the UW Hospital, the only organ transplant center outside the Milwaukee metro area, the disparities were greater. During the same period, 15 percent of blacks on the waiting list died, compared to 10 percent of whites. Blacks were only about 72 percent as likely as whites to receive transplants.
Death rates have fallen gradually in the past 15 years. Between January 2009 and September 2010, 8 percent of whites and 9 percent of blacks on waiting lists in the Milwaukee area died compared to 8 percent of whites and 10 percent of blacks at the UW Hospital.
Kidney transplants are the most common, followed by liver transplants. Earlier this year, an analysis by Madison’s The Capital Times found than at the UW Hospital, which is the country’s third-largest kidney transplant center, about 59 percent of whites waiting for a kidney in 2006 got one while only 43 percent of blacks did.
African Americans are more likely than whites to develop high blood pressure, diabetes and other diseases that lead to organ failure, especially kidney failure. Per capita, blacks are more likely to need organ transplants than whites.
There are some alternatives to transplants, such as kidney dialysis, that can extend life while waiting for an organ. While only 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans make up 40 percent of patients on dialysis and about 30 percent of those needing a new kidney.
The “organ gap” has never been fully explained, although it’s been around since transplants began.
Jay Campbell, vice-president for organ and tissue donation at the Blood Center of Wisconsin, says the process by which organs are handed out in this state is designed to be race-neutral. Transplants are given to the next best match on the waiting list.
But according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the non-profit that oversees organ transplants for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, race plays a role in who may be the “best match.” Organs of the same race tend to function better after transplant, it says. Patricia McManus, executive director of the Milwaukee Black Health Coalition, says research has found certain bio-markers linked to race.
If that’s the case, the relative shortage of African Americans donating organs could partially explain the gap. In Wisconsin, between 1995 and September 2010, blacks made about 7 percent of organ donations but accounted for 14 percent of transplant waiting lists.
Groups dealing with the issue in Milwaukee have taken to churches and hospital rooms to encourage blacks to donate.
“We need to be reflective of the community,” says Campbell.
McManus says there was no outreach to the black community to donate organs until about two decades ago. “They’re doing better than they were,” she says. “It was like, ‘You didn’t talk to us until now, and now you want our organs?’”
The outreach has picked up in recent years. Campbell says a reorganization of the Wisconsin Donor Networkin 2006 coincided with a renewed effort to reach out to the black community for donations. “I was surprised how startled the African American leaders were,” he recalls. “When African Americans donate, African Americans live. We’re looking for a community response to a community problem.”
Campbell says the Network is reaching out to the community through area churches and bedside visits in hospitals. He says black organ donation is beginning to increase. “Organ donation rides on a bridge of trust,” he says.
Religious beliefs can deter people from donating organs. Campbell says it’s a common reason for not donating, but that there is nothing in Western religion that suggests that lacking some organs will prevent you from entering the afterlife, as some people believe. However, “If someone feels that way, we honor that. We’re not there to override their wishes,” he says.
The Donor Network’s website also has an “African American Outreach” section. On it, five downloadable short videos pitch the need for donating.
Froedtert spokeswoman Kim Wick praises the Network’s efforts. “They’re reaching out to families,” she says