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January 2011

Emily Blumberg

Minimizing the Risk of Donor Disease Transmission

by Emily Blumberg
Professor of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

Each year in the United States, nearly 30,000 people receive the opportunity to save, extend or enhance their lives through the human gift of organ donation. Of those, roughly three-fourths of the organs transplanted come from deceased donors.

Because every transplant involves a human donor, there is always a small risk of transmitting a disease present in the donor that might harm the recipient. Some potentially transmissible diseases, such as hepatitis or CMV, can be readily identified by a common lab test. Other diseases can't be positively determined in the short time frame that deceased donor organs must be recovered, transported and transplanted. Still other diseases have no specific screening test and may not become known unless symptoms occur in a recipient.

Transplant clinicians understand that the only way to avoid all risk of donor-transmitted disease is not to do a transplant at all, with the certain and catastrophic consequences of organ failure. At the same time, we want to take all reasonable measures first to prevent donor-transmitted disease and secondly to direct timely and effective interventions for those recipients who become ill despite our best efforts.

Since 1986, United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) has operated a national transplant network under federal contract. Known as the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), it develops organ allocation policies and standards for all transplant centers and organ procurement organizations nationwide. The OPTN also collects detailed medical data on all donors, transplant candidates and transplant recipients throughout the United States.

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