Reluctance to donate organs can be overcome

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 September, 2008, 12:00am

Campaigns in Hong Kong to increase the number of people willing to donate their organs for transplants have had limited success. There is a reluctance for donors to come forward, as the lengthy waiting lists for organs attest. The rate of donation is far lower than in other developed societies - with the result that patients can wait for years or, as in about 30 cases annually of those with liver problems, die before receiving life-saving surgery. A more innovative strategy is needed.

The Hospital Authority is on the right track with its taking up of the idea that a memorial garden be built to honour organ donors. Donors' families presently receive only a certificate of appreciation from the authority's chief executive. This is hardly an incentive to sign up to give organs. Nor does such miserly recognition reflect the seriousness of the situation - more than 1,400 people are waiting for kidneys and another 120 for livers.

There is an international shortage of organs for transplantation. Hong Kong lags far behind other places when it comes to donors, though. In the United States last year, there were 26.6 donors per 1 million residents and in Britain 13.2. But in Hong Kong, the figure is only 4.7. Cultural sensibilities about removing organs after death are cited as the reason, although this is the same as objections elsewhere. Education and incentives can change such thinking.

The certificates authorities give here pale in comparison to the tax incentives, memorials, counselling sessions, medals and public ceremonies that reward donors and their families elsewhere. Extensive government campaigns back such schemes. The efforts do not eliminate waiting lists - getting people to give up their organs to save lives remains a challenge - but inroads are being made. If lives are to be saved in Hong Kong, such ideas have to be considered.

A memorial garden goes a way to filling the void. Honouring donors in a setting of reflection and solace through walkways, lawns, groves and ponds, as at the US' National Donor Memorial in Richmond, Virginia, is a fitting tribute. But it should not be the only effort authorities make. They have to formulate a wide-ranging strategy to change cultural norms on organ donations.