Around 12,000 people are on the waiting list for an organ transplant in Germany as only 15 percent of Germans carry an organ donor card. Some politicians think the system needs to change so that consent is assumed.
If you're told that you need a liver transplant, or a new kidney, the sad truth is that the wait for that new organ is often longer than the time you have left.
"The waiting time for a kidney transplant is around seven years, and even worse for heart and liver transplants," said Günter Kirste, medical director for the German Foundation for Organ Transplantation (DSO).
Of the 12,000 people waiting for a new organ in Germany, three people die every day before they get the chance of a new organ.
Shortfall of donors
There is a huge shortfall between the high demand for transplants and the small number of registered organ donors.
In Germany you can register as a donor and select on your donor card what organs you are happy to donate after your death. However, only around 15 percent of the public have a card.
"Around 80 percent are actually in favor of being a donor, but most of them have no card nor have [they] spoken to their family about their wishes," Kirste said.
The DSO together with other national transplant associations organizes special days when they offer information to the public to help boost the number of donors.
At one such day in Frankfurt, the leader of the Social Democrats in the German parliament, Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on the public to "take a moment to consider those battling for life." The issue is personally pertinent for Steinmeier as only last year he donated a kidney to his wife when she was taken ill.
"They're battling, waiting, hoping for that phone call from the clinic saying their organ donor has finally arrived," Steinmeier said.
Even with big visible events like the one in Frankfurt, the number of donors has actually decreased slightly in 2011 compared to 2010.
A new system needed?
The system in Germany is completely voluntary, as you only have to register for a donor card if it interests you. Even then, you can tick a box on the card saying you do not wish for any of your organs to be used after your death.
However some think this system lets too many potential donors slip through the net. Instead of requiring people to choose to be a donor, it should be assumed that they would do so, said Stefan Grüttner, Minister for Social Affairs in the state of Hesse.
"Lots of people are ready to donate their organs after their death but simply don't have a donor card," Grüttner told Deutsche Welle. "Under an opt-out system people can still object, or their relatives can object, but the number of potential organ donors would dramatically increase."
Grüttner argued that Germany is lagging behind countries like Spain where consent is presumed. Indeed Germany has 15 donors for every million inhabitants, compared to 34 donors per million in Spain. Grüttner, who currently chairs the meetings of Germany's state health ministers, plans to put his ideas to them at the end of June.
Importance of decision-making
However Grüttner's critics say an opt-out system removes an important element of free choice.
Egbert Trowe was the recipient of a new liver in 2002 after hepatitis B developed into cirrhosis and he needed a new organ to live.
He does not know if his donor had a card, or whether it was the next of kin who decided, but he said the important thing was that the decision was not forced.
"Everyone should make the decision freely, and I believe the law in Germany is based on that democratic principle," Trowe said. He thinks the way to improve the system is to improve relations and communication between hospitals and transplant organizations.
Dr Kirste from the DSO is also not totally sure an opt-out system is the way forward, but suggests there is a "middle ground." He thinks people should be asked about organ donation every time they do things like apply for a passport or driving license, or buy health insurance.
"People need to be confronted with this topic and make up their minds," Kirste said.
Author: Catherine Bolsover
Editor: Michael Lawton
“You Have the Power to Save Lives – Register to be an organ and tissue donor & Tell Your Loved Ones of Your Decision”
In the United States, be sure to find out how to register in your state at organdonor.gov (Go to top right to select your state)
In Great Britain, register at NHS Organ Donor Register
In Australia, register at Australian Organ Donor Register
Your generosity can save or enhance the lives of up to fifty people with heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas and small intestine transplants (see allotransplantation). One tissue donor can help by donating skin, corneas, bone, tendon, ligaments and heart valves
Has your life been saved by an organ transplant? "Pay it forward" and help spread the word about the need for organ donation - In the U.S. another person is added to the national transplant waiting list every 11 minutes and 18 people die each day waiting for an organ or tissue transplant. Organs can save lives, corneas renew vision, and tissue may help to restore someone's ability to walk, run or move freely without pain. Life Begins with You