Speech by Dr James Reilly, T.D., Minister for Health at the launch of Organ Donor Awareness Week 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen.

Today is important, and the week we’re launching is important.

The week couldn’t be more important.

It’s about saving lives. It’s about handing back their lives to people who have seen everything narrow to a tiny number of possibilities, a tiny number of activities.

That’s the bottom line.

Setting aside a special week, using the airwaves and the print media, can reach people who might otherwise never think of being organ donors. Reach them. Persuade them. Add to the success story that is organ donation and transplantation.

Because, let’s be in no doubt – it is a success story. Its very success is what has led to organ shortages in Ireland and throughout Europe. It’s a success story based on generosity and altruism.

Generosity and altruism from grief-stricken families.

It’s easy to be generous when times are good. It’s unbelievably hard to be generous – to make the decision to donate when you’re overwhelmed with grief.

Yet families do it. They do it so that others can be given a second chance at life.

They do it because their son, their daughter, their husband, their wife decided to carry an organ donor card and maybe discussed their decision with them.

Because of their actions, and because of our highly skilled transplant teams and support staff in hospitals across the country, lives are saved and quality of life is restored.

And, while the rate of organ donation fell in 2010, Ireland still had an organ donation rate of 22 per million in 2010. That puts us up among the highest which places us among the higher rates in Europe. In the UK the figure is 16 per million.

I am happy to report that our rates have picked up in the first quarter of 2011: a 90% increase in comparison with the same period in 2010.

It’s my job to ensure that the success story of organ donation in Ireland is pushed further along by legislation.

The Programme for Government includes a commitment to introduce an opt-out system of organ donation. As preparation of the legislation proceeds I’m going to ensure we consult further on the matter. We all share the same aim: making sure as many patients as possible benefit from organ donation. But I do want to make it clear, today, that I see the opt-out proposal as merely a way of starting a conversation.

The express permission of the family is crucial. No organ removal will ever happen against the wishes of a family. Full stop. Consent systems are important.

But good co-ordination at hospital level and counselling arrangements for relatives are just as important to achieving high organ donation rates.

That’s why I’m also considering what practices and organisational changes could further improve donation rates in this country.

As many you know, the HSE recently established a National Office for Organ Donation and Transplantation. It will be led by Professor Jim Egan who’s a Consultant Respiratory and Transplant Physician at the Mater Hospital.

Professor Egan and the National Office for Organ Donation and Transplantation, together with my Department, will endeavour to enhance organ donation in Ireland and underpin the quality of outcomes for patients following organ donation.

Organ Donor Awareness Week is key to enhancing organ donation in this country, and everybody involved in it and behind it deserves our gratitude. Because it has the capacity to get through to busy people and help them make a decision – or a couple of decisions – that can change the world for a patient waiting for a transplant.

As a result of this week, more people will decide to donate. That’s great.

I hope they’ll take one other step. I hope they’ll also talk to their families about their decision. Not everybody does. According to a 2010 Eurobarometer survey, while 6 out of every 10 Irish citizens are willing to donate an organ, only 4 out of 10 Irish citizens discuss organ donation within their families.

This Organ Donor Awareness Week is going to have a lot of positive results. Not easy to measure, all of those results, but important, nonetheless.

I sincerely hope that the publicity around the Week causes families around the country to talk about organ donation. So that this vital, generous, live-changing decision can be embraced by families who have already considered it, and who share the intent expressed on an organ donor card by one of their members.

Thank you.