Steps must be taken to boost organ donation in Hong Kong
The city has one of the lowest rates worldwide, but greater community acceptance is also a must
The story of a 17-year-old trying to donate her liver to save her dying mother has made headlines for the wrong reason. Just because Michelle is three months short of the statutory age requirement to become a living donor, she is barred from helping her 43-year-old mother. Thankfully, another citizen with no blood relations came forward, apparently after hearing of the plight of the family. A transplant operation was carried out yesterday.
The noble act of the donor has not just given hope to the family, but also averted a possible legal challenge against the government. It is a matter of the law that a living donor must be at least 18 years old. The government says it has no discretion to waive the age limit under the statute enacted in 2004. The health chief conceded that the law might need to be amended to provide more flexibility.
Studies show that Britain had three living donations from minors between 1986 and 2005, two of whom were aged 15 and 17. Canada sets the age limit at between 16 to 19, depending on the province. Some countries entrust the decision to medical bodies. Officials can perhaps tap overseas experience if they were to consider changing the law.
Hong Kong is not alone is facing the dilemma of whether to accept organ donations from teenagers. The medical and moral issues involved are certainly complex, for example the level of risks and benefits and whether other options have been exhausted.
The issue would not have arisen had organ donation been more accepted among the local public. The donation rate in Hong Kong is among the lowest in the world, with only 5.8 in every million people donating in 2015. The actual number of transplants for each major organ has hovered around 80 a year over the past years. This is way below some countries, which do not just count on voluntary donations. For instance, Spain’s donation rate was as high as 39.7 people per million in 2015, helped by a system under which adult citizens are automatically considered as donors unless they register an objection. The Hong Kong government is right in saying that a more aggressive approach may be needed to address the problem. But to do so requires the broad support of the community.