For people suffering from serious health issues, chronic illness, or trauma, organ donors are a lifeline and are their only hope for survival. While the donor waitlist continues to grow and outpace the organ donation rate, that fact is even more significant for minority populations, especially Black and Latinx communities.
Recent data shows that organ donor lists are often missing Black and Latinx donors. While it is not required that ethnicity match between the donor and recipient, experts agree that it increases chances of survival and success. The fact that there is a gap in minority organ donors is concerning, and it’s certainly something we should all be aware of.
A matter of genetics
According to Health Resources & Services Administration, nearly 110,000 men, women, and children are on the national transplant waiting list. Of those people, 17 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant. For those people, this waitlist is truly a matter of life or death.
It’s important to note that just because you are on the waitlist does not mean you’ll necessarily receive an organ donation or match appropriately with a donor, which is why it’s so crucial that the list of potential organ donors be not only lengthy but also diverse.
To be clear: it is not required that an organ donor and recipient share the same ethnicity. Just as an illness does not discriminate, organs do not see color or race. That said, there is some truth that organ transplants have a higher chance of success when genetics are aligned.
“Even though you do not have to be of the same ethnicity, the donor and the recipient, we do find that there are studies that show the transplant tend to be more successful when the donors and the recipients share similar genetics,” explains Clarissa Thompson, Senior Communication Coordination at the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance.
The more diverse an organ donor registry, the more of a chance that ethnic minorities will be able to find a donor match and move off the donor waitlist before it’s too late. People of the same ethnicity seem to match better and more successfully because the immune system markers used to match organ donors and recipients are inherited. Hence, people with rare markers are more likely to match someone from a similar ethnic background, according to organdonor.gov.
Figures speak for themselves
Recent data indicates that donor lists are not as diverse as they should be, and they lack Black and Hispanic organ donors.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, in 2020, black people made up 28.5 percent of the total candidates currently waiting for transplants. They only accounted for 12.9 percent of organ donors in 2020. That disparity can be problematic.
The fact that organ donor lists are missing Black and Latinx donors implies that minority patients might be less likely to undergo transplant surgery or experience successful transplants should they need a lifesaving procedure. Data support that minority patients are less likely to undergo transplants compared to white patients.
Findings from a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that among black and Hispanic patients, the incidence of live donor kidney transplantation between 1995 and 2014 decreased, from 3.4 percent to 2.9 percent for black patients and from 6.8 percent to 5.9 percent for Hispanic patients. That decrease is compared to an increase in organ donations among white patients over the same period.
This is definitely something to be concerned about, and experts agree there needs to be a change before it’s too late.
“We need to implement a national strategy that specifically targets a reduction in these disparities,” argues Tanjala Purnell, Ph.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. That includes disseminating culturally appropriate educational materials on a national scale and offering support and services to patients and potential donors.