Waiting time in Hong Kong for cornea transplants more than halved over past five years

Number of patients waiting for transplants also cut in half although voluntary donation rate still remains around 10 per cent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 August, 2017, 12:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 August, 2017, 12:03am

The average queuing time for a cornea transplant has been cut from 36 months to 15 over the past five years, thanks to the efforts of the team at the Hong Kong Eye Bank, whose services won a 2017 Outstanding Award from the Hospital Authority.

The number of patients has also been almost halved over that time, although 280 people are still waiting for a transplant as the voluntary donation rate has remained low for almost a decade, according to specialists.

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The 16-member team at the eye bank is urging people to tell their family if they want to give away their corneas after death.

“Family members decide to give consent when they recall their late ones who once expressed their intention to donate, even though the families are experiencing their most difficult moment, ” said Amanda Luk Chor-kwan, a donation coordinator with seven years of experience talking to families almost immediately after a death.

The eye bank also has four coordinators, five technicians and six supporting staff to carry out operations. The team contacted more than 300 families selected from around 10,000 deaths last year, among whom 35 to 40 per cent agreed to donate 278 corneas.

As Hong Kong runs an opt-in system, explicit consent from a would-be donor and his or her family is required for the eye bank to obtain corneas.

“Time is never on our side,” technician Kenneth Wong Kam-hon said, because the first 12 hours after death is crucial for harvesting so a cornea can be examined before a transplant can be carried out.

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However, few agree to donate corneas. “The [voluntary donation] rate has remained around 10 per cent for eight to 10 years and of course we want more,” manager Catherine Wong Suet-man said.

In 2016, Hong Kong remained one of the least generous regions globally with a deceased organ donation rate of 6.3 out of a million people, according to the International Registry in Organ Donation and Transplantation.

However, Wong insisted that turning to an opt-out system, in which non-refusal is considered consent, would not boost the donation rate overnight.

Instead, public education and professional harvesting services would bring about gradual change.

Eye Hospital consultant Dr Victoria Wong Wing-yee declined to say whether the eye bank was short of staff despite the fact that it covered the whole city with no more than 10 people until 2010.

“We are grateful that the Hospital Authority gave us four staff last year,” the doctor said.