Earl Martinez is a 28-year-old Oregonian suffering from Alport Syndrome, a genetic kidney disorder that has forced him to undergo dialysis treatments for the past year and a half. In order to survive, he needs a new kidney, but the hereditary nature of his disease makes it impossible for his family to provide it. So, after waiting on a transplant list for over a year, Martinez has taken a more active role in addressing his medical needs — by begging for a kidney donor on the side of an Oregon road, CBS News reports.
Money is no obstacle for Martinez, who has health insurance. “My insurance would cover all medical costs on my side and the donor’s side,” Martinez told local CBS affiliate KOIN. “The donor would have no medical costs at all.”
But coverage alone isn’t enough for the approximately 113,000 Americans on an organ transplant waiting list — 80 percent of whom need a new kidney. According to a 2009 Rutgers Law Review article, only 30,000 transplants are performed in America every year. That meets less than a third of the annual demand and leads to 20 American deaths every day due to the lack of organ donors, and 4,000 deaths annually from too few kidney transplants.
Studies suggest that America’s dearth of organ donors may have to do with public health policy. The U.S. relies primarily on an “opt-in” system when it comes to organ donation, meaning that potential donors must actively volunteer to donate, as many Americans do at the DMV after receiving a driver’s license. But other nations’ experiences with organ donation policy suggest that an “opt-out” system — which always presumes a person’s consent upon death, unless that person or his family refuses — could be more effective. Austria, an “opt-out” nation, has a staggering donation consent rate of 99.98 percent, for example.
Still, despite its donor shortage, the U.S. ranks third worldwide in overall organ donation rates after death. And even in states like Oregon, where 70 percent of residents over the age of 18 are registered donors, there are only 274 organ transplants performed annually — suggesting that a lack of registered donors isn’t the root of the problem. The answer to this dilemma may actually lie in the source of Americans’ demand for organs.
The vast majority of U.S. residents waiting for a transplant need a kidney, and the most common causes of chronic kidney disease are diabetes and high blood pressure. It follows that America’s diabetes and obesity epidemic is in large part responsible for the nation’s unsustainable demand for kidney transplants. Addressing the soaring rates of obesity in the U.S., and therefore improving the health of the general population, could help reduce America’s demand for organ transplants. And that could give Americans like Martinez — who has no control over his disease — a much-needed leg up on the waiting list.