The Medical Minute: National Minority Donor Awareness

By John Messmer, M.D.

Aug. 1 was National Minority Donor Awareness Day to promote awareness of organ and tissue donation for non-white people. At first glance, even people in black, Hispanic/Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander ethnic groups may wonder why the special attention to them.

Most people are aware of organ transplants — hearts, kidneys, liver, and so on. Some may know about tissue transplants, such as, corneas, bone and bone marrow and one of the most common tissues to give — blood. What you may not realize is that to accept tissue from a donor, it must be genetically compatible.

Our bodily tissues have certain unique proteins that our own immune systems recognize as “self.” If they are detected in someone else’s body, their immune system sees the tissue as foreign to that person and may attack it. That is what causes organ rejection.

To avoid rejection, donor and recipient must match fairly closely in types of proteins recognized by the immune system. We are much more likely to match people from our own ethnic group, since the genetic background is more likely to be similar.

More than half those currently waiting for organs in the United States are not white. Some may die before receiving an organ because only about one quarter of donors are nonwhite. Each day, 16 people die waiting for an organ.

What can you do to help? Organs and tissues are needed for every ethnicity. Have yourself designated as an organ donor on your driver’s license. Medical care for organ donors is identical to nondonors. Nothing is removed until the donor dies and treatment is continued until death. There is no charge to donors or their families, and there is no visible sign that would preclude an open casket.

The living can donate a kidney or part of a liver, and just about anyone can be a bone marrow or blood donor. Blood can be donated every eight weeks by generally healthy people over 17. Most medications will not disqualify blood donors. Bone marrow is used to replace a person’s blood forming cells destroyed during chemotherapy or by certain diseases. Details on marrow donation can be found at www.marrow.org.

No one can help meet the needs of nonwhite minorities for organs and tissue except members of those groups. No amount of fundraising or medical care can replace a functioning organ matched to the recipient. August is a good time for Americans from black, Hispanic/Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander ethnic groups to commit to being a part of the solution. Spread the word and sign up to be an organ or tissue donor.

John Messmer, M.D., is an associate professor of family and community medicine at Penn State College of Medicine and a staff physician at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

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