Louise Hall | The Sidney Morning Herald
AUSTRALIA has more organ donors than ever after a $150 million funding package put transplant nurses and doctors in all big hospitals and encouraged families to discuss donation.
By the first week of December, 289 people had donated organs this year, 17 per cent more than last year and 75 per cent more than the record low of 164 people a decade ago.
Their donations meant 870 people received organs such as kidneys, hearts, livers and lungs.
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About 1700 people are waiting for a life-saving or life-improving transplants.
The medical director of the NSW Organ and Tissue Donation Service, Dr Jonathan Gillis, said donation rates had steadily improved as result of the federal government's July 2008 reforms to tackle the relatively low donation rate.
Spain has the highest rate of donation, of 34 donors per million people, followed by the US (24) and Britain (15). The rate stands at 11 in Australia.
At a ceremony to mark the 1999th police escort given to surgical retrieval teams since 1984, Dr Gillis said the time it took to transport an organ from where the donor had died to the recipient patient was critical.
Highway Patrol and the Roads and Traffic Authority give the medical convoys a ''green light'' corridor to the scene, to minimise time stuck in traffic and the likelihood of accidents.
Emergency medical transports were introduced at the request of the heart transplant pioneer Dr Victor Chang, who died in 1991.
They usually take place between hospitals or between Sydney Airport and St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst.
"The increase in the number of organ donors has heightened the demand for urgent medical escorts," Dr Gillis said.
Brian Myerson, the director of the organ donation lobby group ShareLife, said while the increase in donors was welcome, a more important measure was the number of transplants performed. More organs could be harvested from donors who suffered brain death while in an intensive care unit of a hospital than from those who died from cardiac death.
Mr Myerson said the increase in donors over the past two years has been primarily made up of cardiac patients.
The heart of the problem
Professor Frank Rosenfeldt has developed a way to pump hearts awaiting transplant with nutrients to stop them failing.
Australia’s heart transplant program has been challenged by the donation of older hearts and the introduction of artificial ones, which result in more complex surgery when a real heart is later transplanted into the patient.
Professor Rosenfeldt is the head of cardiothoracic surgical research at The Alfred hospital in Victoria. His perfusion system keeps hearts viable for up to 12 hours — three times longer than The Alfred’s current safe ischaemic time — and results in them pumping blood more effectively than those kept in cold storage.
‘‘I’ve been working on preserving hearts, mainly for surgery, for most of my research life. I thought I would give this a try and it was amazing just how effective it was,’’ he said.
Increase in the number of donors nationally
1989 – 231
1999 — 164
2008 — 259
2009 — 24
2010 — 289