The Paradox of Organ Donation in the Latino Community

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Photo courtesy of BELatina.

When it comes to health, the Latino community is a paradox in itself. Our genetics seem to defend us tooth and nail from conditions that would devastate other demographics, but social and economic inequalities keep us lagging behind in access to health resources.

Likewise, beliefs and cultural frameworks often place us in dilemmas that are often a bone of contention at the dinner table. Organ donation, for example.

According to research from the University of Texas, Latinos have a disproportionate need for donor organs and are less likely to consent to donation than their non-Latino counterparts.

Citing figures from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), the researchers found that the waiting list for donor organs has exceeded 100,000 individuals in recent years.

This figure includes a disproportionate number of Latino candidates. Expressly, people of Latino origin represent 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, yet they account for 16.9 percent of the candidates on the U.S. waiting list.

If we consider projections suggesting that the Latino population is the fastest-growing group in the country, we can also assume that increased demand for donor organs among Latinos is imminent. The University of Texas researchers also highlight certain more prevalent diseases in Latinos that may lead to a greater need for transplantation, such as diabetes mellitus or end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

Why are Latinos less likely to donate their organs?

Over a 20-year period, only 10.6 percent of recovered deceased donors were Latino, relative to 73.9 percent of whites and 12.4 percent of blacks, according to the OPTN.

This is particularly troubling when Latino individuals are less likely than whites to be waitlisted or receive a transplant. According to the research, Latinos wait longer on the list for donor organs and have a lower percentage of transplants one year after listing for a single organ.

In surveying a cohort of patients, the researchers found that Latinos expressed greater concern about body disfigurement and greater doubt that physicians would do everything possible to preserve life before seeking organ donation.

Also, as seen in other health access cases, Latinos have greater language barriers, myths, and superstitions.

Interviews with Spanish-speaking individuals in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York revealed that Hispanics who intended to be organ donors were uninformed about organ donation. In contrast, those against or undecided about organ donation were misinformed.

For example, an interview of five Mexican families in Southern California found that many did not realize that donation takes place after death and that brain death is death.

Opposing families believed that known organ donors may be under surveillance or persecuted by organ recovery organizations and doubted that organ donation is managed in an honest, nonprofit manner.

Both opposing and consenting families expressed suspicion that there is a black market in organ sales, especially in Mexico, and a general reluctance to “plan for death.” Consenting families were motivated to donate by the belief that their loved one would continue to live and that by agreeing to donate their loved one’s organs, someone else could live.

Similarly, the survey found that many Latino populations have strong beliefs related to the Catholic faith, including a belief in a miracle that delays death. Until a final declaration of death occurs, Hispanic families may not be receptive to a discussion about organ donation.

The researchers conclude that the Latino population requires bilingual care, as well as national campaigns that reach diverse Latino populations to increase commitment to organ donation and instill confidence in the medical establishment.