HIV Positive Organ Donors? Some Say Yes!
April is among many other causes, Donate Life Month. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) there are over 72,000 people actively waiting for transplants right now. Currently organ donors need to meet a number of very strict criteria including testing negative for HIV and Hepatitis before their organs will be transplanted into a recipient. However a number of physician, researchers and bio-ethicists are calling for a change to that practice.
Doctors at John Hopkins University Medical School recently conducted a study that showed 500 potential donors are eliminated from the donor pool yearly because of testing HIV positive. Since there are currently HIV positive patients on the donor waiting list for healthy organs the researchers see this as a win win situation for organ donation. HIV positive patients could donate organs to HIV positive recipients, freeing up healthy organs to go to non HIV positive donors. This would, in theory, increase the number of transplants by about 500 a year. The problem is that federal laws that were written in the 1980’s when HIV was first being discovered banned the practice. So researchers, doctors and patients are urging the government to change the law.
But is this a good idea? Critics point out that patients with well controlled HIV could be exposed to a more aggressive form and end up sicker than they were prior to the transplant. There is also the question of drug resistance and if this kind of organ swapping could create more problems with that. Proponents point out that Hepatitis patients have been swapping organs with positive donors for several years and the results have bee positive. Supporters are using that as an example of how an effective program can be run.
Do we know enough to do this safely is the question that keeps going through my mind. There are still so many questions about HIV the disease. Organ transplants are a very delicate surgery with lots of risks for complications if even the slightest thing doesn't match. HIV is still a relatively new disease, we have only been aware of it, treating it and researching it since 1984. In fact just last month, the first known case in the US of a live donor giving HIV to a recipient was diagnosed in New York. In this case the donor had tested negative 79 days before the transplant but had engaged in high risk behavior between then and the transplant and was never re-tested. This incidence has also left doctors calling for changes in the federal regulations.Continued on the next page