Emory Report

August 31, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 2

More black organ donors needed for transplant patients

For the past two years organ donation among African Americans in Georgia has declined, yet more than half of the nearly 900 Georgians awaiting lifesaving organ transplants are African-American. Nationwide, fewer than 12 percent of organ donors are African-American.

The Institute for Minority Health Research at the School of Public Health has partnered with Emory Hospital's Center for Transplantation to spearhead establishment of the Georgia Leadership Commission on Organ, Tissue, Blood and Marrow Donation Among African Americans. The project has been funded by a grant from the Carlos and Marguerite Mason Trust.

The commission consists of 21 opinion leaders from across the state, including representatives from the African-American faith community, public health practitioners and transplant recipients. According to project co-investigator Jennie Perryman, director of the Center for Transplantation, the commission will provide a public forum for addressing a broad range of issues that influence participation in donation programs. Public hearings will be held in Georgia to gather testimony from health care providers, community leaders and patients to determine issues and challenges to African-American organ and tissue donation. Commissioners will evaluate the information presented and make recommendations for strategies to increase the number of African-American donors.

"Far too many African Americans refuse to sign donor cards because of concern about how organs are allocated, religious beliefs and lack of trust in the medical research establishment," said associate professor Stephen Thomas, project co-investigator and director of the Institute for Minority Health Research. "The behavior of physicians must also be examined to determine the extent to which African Americans are-or are not-being offered transplants that can prolong and improve quality of life."

Upping the organ donation rate for both live and deseased black donors is the most direct and cost-effective approach to reducing waiting times for the majority of transplant candidates in Georgia, Perryman said. "Increasing the number of blood donations from African Americans could potentially decrease the number of black persons on organ transplant waiting lists," she added.

Human biology dictates why increasing the pool of African-American blood donors will contribute to increased organ transplants. Blood used for the transfusions needed during organ transplant surgeries often comes from national blood banks-whose donors are mostly white. Since African Americans are sensitized to tissue-typing antigens more frequently than whites, their bodies are often less receptive to banked blood-and they tend to appear on transplant lists longer just waiting for compatible blood.

Breakthroughs at medical centers-including Emory- in treating sickle cell anemia with bone marrow transplantation have further increased the need for more organ, tissue, blood and marrow donations from African Americans. The hereditary blood disease, predominant among African Americans, causes enormous pain and even premature death to black children and young adults.

"Unfortunately, advancements in transplantation to treat sickle cell anemia and kidney disease-which disproportionately affect African-Americans-and many other life-threatening conditions are being thwarted by the donor shortage problem," Thomas said. Many Georgians first realized this problem with media coverage of the death of Michelle Carew, the 18-year-old daughter of baseball Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew. Michelle died of leukemia after no compatible donor could be found for a bone marrow transplant. "For the first time in recent memory, millions of people saw a black man in the media spotlight call, unsuccessfully, to African Americans to donate bone marrow," said Thomas. "Every year far too many African Americans suffer the same situation with far less publicity-but the call is no less urgent."

--Lorri Preston

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