Organ transplants on the rise, but still a shortage in Canada

Timely organ transplants save lives  But Canada’s deceased donor rate still lags behind other countries

Good news: More Canadians are making living or deceased organ donations, helping to meet Canada’s need for organ transplants and improving the quality of life for patients. 

Less encouraging news: There remains a big gap between donations and need, and compared with other countries, Canada still has a long way to go.

CIHI’s recent report Treatment of End-Stage Organ Failure in Canada, 2003 to 2012 rounds up the data on organ transplants for the past 10 years. Even though the report reveals some significant areas for improvement, it offers a hopeful picture for Canadians and important insights for health care leaders and policy-makers. 

Worth mentioning

Our report reflects a shift in living donor generosity—most notably, a 114% increase in non-related living donors in Canada since 2003. Also worth noting is that young Canadians, from birth to age 39, comprise Canada’s largest group of living organ donors, followed closely by those age 40 to 49.

Perhaps the most significant finding is that the rate of deceased donors has risen steadily over the past 10 years. For the first time in recent years, the number of deceased organ donors in Canada has exceeded the number of living donors.

This is important because deceased donors can provide up to eight organs for transplant to Canadians in need.

Waiting for organs

The positive numbers in CIHI’s report may be explained partly by a rise in the number of government advocacy initiatives, like easier online registration for organ donation. Added to that is heightened public awareness due to greater media coverage and social media campaigns.

However, even with the increases in organ donation numbers in Canada, particularly over the past four years, there has still been a shortfall: for each organ group—heart, lung, liver and kidney—there is an equal or larger number of Canadians waiting for organs.

The human cost is reflected in the number of Canadians who die while waiting: 230 people in 2012.

Susan’s story 

Susan McKenzie is the senior director of development for the national office of The Kidney Foundation of Canada. She’s also a transplant recipient.

Susan explains that her health care team originally aimed to do a pre-emptive kidney transplant to circumvent the effects of her familial kidney disease. However, in 2009, after 10 years of relatively little change to her health, Susan’s disease suddenly progressed—too rapidly to find a compatible organ donor and get a kidney transplant. Before she knew it, she was on dialysis.

“Almost overnight, I went from enjoying good health to going for dialysis three times a week,” she explains. “It was a difficult adjustment.”

A new perspective on life

Susan began her search for a donor. Because of the nature of her disease, her blood relatives could not donate a kidney. Instead, Susan asked friends and other family members. Being her own advocate, she claims, was a crucial component to the success of her search. Six people came forward and the testing process for organ compatibility began. “Just knowing that people were there and being tested helped get me through,” Susan says. “It was like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Just over a year later, Susan had a new kidney—and a new lease on life. And she’s been healthy now for four years.

“The whole experience has changed me and given me a new perspective,” she says.“Getting a transplant changes the way you look at the world.”