Speech by Leo Varadkar, T.D., Minister for Health at the Launch of Organ Donor Awareness Week Mansion House, Dublin Tuesday, 29th March 2016


Colleagues, I am delighted to be here to launch Organ Donor Awareness Week 2016.

The Awareness Week promotes the life-saving role of organ donation, and I’m very glad to be supporting it. I hope it will create more opportunities for life-changing transplantations.  The evidence shows that it does raise awareness. Events this week will highlight the enormous benefits of organ transplantation for patients, and hopefully more people will learn about the need for more organ donors.

As you know, an organ transplant can make an enormous difference to a patient, and to the lives of those around them.  Some of you have benefited from organ donations and I can understand the gratitude you feel for the donors.

Others of you may be hoping to receive an organ transplant. We all have a duty to do everything we can to ensure that as many people as possible benefit from this gift of life.

Ireland has a strong record in organ donation and transplantation.  However, we can still do more, and I want to see Ireland becoming one of the top performing countries in Europe.  In 2015, a total of 266 transplants were carried out, involving 81 deceased donors and 33 living donors.  I want to see donation and transplantation rates increasing again in 2016 and I hope the building blocks now in place will see the target of 300 transplants achieved this year for the first time.

I have provided additional funding to allow Organ Donation and Transplant Ireland to develop the most appropriate infrastructure for organ donation and transplantation. This extra investment has allowed extra staff to be taken on, including organ procurement coordinators based in Dublin and organ donation nurse managers in each Hospital Group area. They are working to foster a strong culture of organ donation, to optimise conversion rates and to increase the number of transplantations that are carried out each year. The investment is already producing results with transplant figures rising in 2015.  Transplants to the end of February this year are also very encouraging, and are higher again than the same period 12 months ago.

The Heart and Lung Transplant Programme in the Mater Hospital has been going from strength to strength. The number of heart and lung transplants has risen from 43 in 2013, to 49 in 2014 and to 52 in 2015.  The total of 36 lung transplants last year was a record, and the 16 heart transplants was the second highest achieved in a year.  A further milestone achieved last year was the first combined heart and lung transplant in Ireland.

I want to congratulate Karen Redmond, Consultant Thoracic & Lung Transplant Surgeon, and her team at the Mater who have recently carried out the State’s first EVLP – or Ex-Vivo Lung Perfusion transplant. This uses donor lungs that would previously be classified as unsuitable.  This technique has the potential to significantly increase the availability of donor lungs for transplantation.

The number of kidney transplants increased slightly last year on the 2015 figure.  Given the reduced transplant team available during the year, this represents a creditable performance.  Recruitment efforts continue at Beaumont Hospital and appointments are expected in the coming months.

In 2015, a total of 61 liver transplants were carried out in St Vincent’s University Hospital.  This is the second highest figure on record and it represents a significant increase on the 2014 total.

In addition, arrangements have been made for the move of the pancreas transplant programme to St Vincent’s.  I look forward to pancreas transplantation starting as soon as a suitable donor/recipient match can be found.

I want to acknowledge the skill of our transplant teams across the three hospitals involved, and the commitment of staff in hospitals across the country who initiate donations and ensure that transplantations can happen.

The reconfigured National Organ Procurement Service is another critical element.  They approach their work with great enthusiasm and dedication and are key to the recent increase in transplantations.

We also need to ensure that every link in the chain – from donation to transplantation – adheres to the highest standards of quality and safety.  This means ensuring that families who donate organs, and those who receive organs, can be fully confident that the system meets the very best standards of international practice.

Regulations for the quality and safety of organs are in place in every transplant and procurement centre in Ireland.

All necessary inspections were carried out by the Health Products Regulatory Authority during 2015 and the required standards are being achieved in all cases.  I also want to mention the key role played by the National Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics Service for Solid Organ Transplantation, and the National Virus Reference Laboratory for the vital roles they play in the transplant effort.

Dedicated Quality Managers have been appointed in each of the three transplant hospitals, as well as in the National Organ Procurement Service.  This team is further developing quality systems for transplant services.  They aim to ensure that the risks associated with organ procurement and transplantation are minimised, and the benefits maximised.

I want to see a time where organ donation becomes the norm when people pass away in circumstances in which donation is a possibility.  That’s why my Department continues to develop proposals for an opt-out system of consent for organ donation.

It is also very important to encourage people to share their views on organ donation with their loved ones.

The benefits of considering these issues in advance, and making clear their position to their next-of-kin, can ensure that their wishes are met should they find themselves in the unfortunate situation where organ donation becomes a possibility. Being aware of the views of a loved one can also provide tremendous satisfaction and peace of mind to those left behind, who have the consolation of knowing that they are implementing the wishes of the deceased.

We must continue to do everything in our power to comfort, console and counsel families who find themselves in the most difficult of circumstances, having lost a loved one, while encouraging them to allow their loved one to live on through the gift of life to another person.

I want to thank Mark Murphy and his colleagues in the IKA – the Irish Kidney Association – who have been to the forefront in promoting organ donor awareness.  The IKA is synonymous with efforts to encourage organ donation in Ireland.

Organ Donor Awareness Week does make a real difference. In previous years there have been noticeable spikes in donation levels during and after this awareness week.  Our real challenge is to maintain high levels of donation and transplantation throughout the year.

I also want to acknowledge the involvement of Vivienne Traynor as ambassador for organ donation this year.  As a kidney donor herself, she is a perfect choice to highlight the importance of organ donation and transplantation.

I want to thank Professor Jim Egan and his colleagues in Organ Donation & Transplant Ireland for their commitment, and for their key role in ensuring that the reconfigured services operate effectively.  Most of all, I thank the families who have facilitated the donation of organs of their loved ones, often to the benefit of several recipients.  I also acknowledge the huge kindness of those who have become living kidney donors.

In conclusion, I reiterate my commitment to enhancing organ donation and transplantation rates to the benefit of patients and their families. I hope that Organ Donor Awareness Week will again successfully raise awareness, and result in more people getting the call that an organ match has been found for them.

Thank you.