Why you should care
We might have a lot to learn from the one country without an organ shortage.
It’s on the brink of developing nuclear weapons. It voraciously backs Syrian president Bashar Assad in a bloody civil war. It executed at least 500 people last year, and its overall human rights record is dismal. But this nation is up for at least one humanitarian gold star: It may have solved a crisis that kills approximately 21 Americans every day, according to data from the U.S. government.
Yup, it’s Iran. In legalizing the sale of organs, the Islamic Republic eliminated the waiting list for organ transplants. No other country on earth has done so.
But before you start a one-person Iranian Tourism Board and go urging everyone within earshot to make a Middle East move and do a Kickstarter campaign for your organ sales start-up (OZY’s looking at you!), keep in mind that Iran falls short in one category: organ donors per million. That accolade goes to Spain, the recession-ridden nation that in 2012 cut its health care budget by $9.6 billion a year. No matter, on Feb. 20, Spanish doctors conducted a record
organ transplants in one day.
That’s nine more than the previous mark (which Spain also held) and approximately four times its average day rate. If Americans were as scalpel-happy as the Spaniards that day, the 123,358 person wait-list in the States would — poof! — vanish in just over a year.
And no, it’s not because the Spanish are so economically hopeless they’ll give up their organs without second thought. In fact, since 1992, three years after the creation of the National Transplant Organization, led by Dr. Rafael Matesanz, they have been world leaders. Give partial credit to an opt-out system of organ donation, which means citizens are organ donors by default, from birth, and have to elect not to gift their innards postmortem.
It’s the opposite in the U.S. People choose to sign up when they get their driver’s license or if they are dying in hospital — about a third get the pink sticker signifying donor status at the DMV, and another 10 percent opt in on their deathbed. Still, it’s nowhere near enough. But changing the law may not be the answer. What matters most is the amount of resources a country is willing to put in, says Matesanz. “The system is not relevant,” he says.
There are options besides paying for organs and legislating people to give them up. Take Israel. It incentivizes donors by giving them priority should they ever need an organ themselves. And Dr. Andrew Cameron, surgical director of liver transplantation at Johns Hopkins University, thinks trying to up the number of living donors, as opposed to dead ones, is the way to go. Enter social media. He’s already garnered media love after teaming up with Facebook to allow donors to change their status and show off (rightfully so) to friends. Next, an app that will allow those in need of organs to tell their story — encouraging friends and family to step on up to the operating table.
This OZY encore was originally published March 16, 2015.