Black, Asian and minority ethnic organ donors sought after pandemic shortfall

·4-min read

More must be done to increase the number of so-called “living organ donors” from black, Asian, mixed race and minority ethnic backgrounds after the number plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) has said.

The organ donation authority said that living organ donation – typically when someone donates a kidney – fell among all groups during 2020.

But the issue was even more pronounced among people from black, Asian, mixed race and minority ethnic communities.

A total of 444 patients were able to receive a donation from a living donor last year, despite constraints on the health system from Covid-19. But this was a drop of 58% compared to the previous year.

Data from NHSBT also showed disparities between people from different backgrounds.

The number of living donors from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities had stood at around 160 for the last five years.

But after the pandemic hit, the figure fell to 62 donors in 2020/21 – a fall of 61%.

Meanwhile, the number of deceased donors from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds fell by 25% last year – from 112 in 2019/20 to 84 in 2020/21.

As of March 31, there were 1,237 people from these communities on the organ transplant waiting list, 29.5% of all people waiting for a transplant, NHSBT said.

The pandemic led to many patients being “suspended” from the waiting list as there were fewer donors and fewer transplants.

Pressure on intensive care units also meant that many life-saving or life-changing transplant operations needed to be pushed back.

Meanwhile, difficult assessments were made about the risk of becoming an immunosuppressed organ recipient during the pandemic.

For many patients in need of a transplant, the best match will often come from a donor from the same ethnic background – kidney donors and recipients are matched by blood group and tissue type – and people from the same ethnic background are more likely to be a match.

Bally Singh Sandhu has been waiting three years for a kidney transplant after being told 10 years ago that he had renal failure.

Bally Singh Sandhu
Bally Singh Sandhu has been waiting three years for a kidney transplant (Family handout/NHSBT/PA)

The 51-year-old, from Yorkshire, has dialysis day and night.

His family have launched an appeal to find a living donor and increase awareness of both deceased and living donation.

“Being from a South Asian background, I always knew I would be waiting for my transplant longer, but I never knew the wait would be this hard,” he said.

“I have difficulty doing the most basic of tasks, such as simply going for a walk or having a good night’s sleep.

“Organ donation is very much a personal choice, and everyone needs to choose what is right for them.

“I know that for many in the Asian community it can be a difficult decision, but as a Sikh I believe it is very much in line with my faith and beliefs – the ability for people to save lives just like mine.

“I just hope and pray that one day I will get that call to say a match has been found.”

Bally Singh Sandhu
Mr Sandhu has dialysis day and night (Family handout/NHSBT/PA)

There are a number of routes for living organ donation. They can be “directed” – where usually a friend or family member donates a kidney, or sometimes a section of liver, to a loved one – or “non-directed”, which occurs which a person donates altruistically to a stranger who is in need.

A scheme called the UK Living Kidney Sharing Scheme is also in place which enables a “chain” of donations to take place – usually where a family or friend of someone in need wants to donate to their loved one but is not a match, so donates to someone else in need. The scheme would then find someone to donate to their loved one.

Lisa Burnapp, clinical lead for living donation for NHSBT, said: “We have worked hard to increase the number of patients able to receive a transplant thanks to living donation but the pandemic has had a substantial impact.

“With more patients now in need of a life-saving transplant, we urgently need more potential living donors to come forward and help us to save more lives.”

Kirit Modi, president of the National BAME Transplant Alliance (NBTA), said: “The pandemic has hugely impacted black, Asian and mixed race and minority ethnic patients waiting for an organ transplant. Right now, it is more important than ever to have that family conversation about organ donation with your loved ones and ensure that whatever your choice, your donation decision is known.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Organ donation is a very personal choice, and my thanks go out to all donors for their selflessness and to all those considering coming forward especially during the pandemic.

“NHSBT is doing great work to raise awareness of organ donation among ethnic minority communities. Coming from a South Asian family, I know how important it is to have these conversations, so we can save more lives.”

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