Saving lives: South Africa joins paired kidney exchange revolution, ANDREA TEAGLE SOUTH AFRICA 06 AUG 2015
"On March 6, 2015, South Africa’s first kidney exchange took place at the Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg. After having been kept alive by dialysis for years, 24-year-old Vivek [not his real name] and 60-year-old Allison Stevenson were both given a new lease on life.
"This was South Africa’s first paired kidney exchange. And it happened almost by chance.
“This youngster in Port Elizabeth – his mother was so anxious about him, she phoned the transplant centre in Johannesburg … It was like the next week that I phoned up.” Stevenson recalls, “And there, Belinda (a transplant coordinator), had this file on her desk, where the aunt didn’t match the nephew. It just so happened that she matched me, and Sally matched Vivek.”
"South Africa relies primarily on deceased kidney donations. Of the 4,300 people on the waiting list for life saving, most are waiting for a kidney. There is only a small hope of getting one: just 0.2% of the population are registered as organ donors. And a host of medical requirements need to be satisfied for a match. The waiting list is like a mile long tightrope to life and many people never make it across.
"This is an example of what economists call a mismatched market. And for at least one economist, Stanford Professor Alvin Roth, it posed an exciting challenge. Roth and his colleagues were able to apply a model to the problem they had initially built out of mathematical curiosity. In 2012, this work won him a joint Nobel Prize in Economics.
Roth’s matching program builds little bridges between supply and demand. The simplest case is a two-way exchange like Stevenson’s. By decoupling the donors from their intended (but incompatible) recipients, and recoupling them with compatible ones, long chains of transplants can take place that otherwise would have been impossible.
"In South Africa this type of optimised matching is but a dream.
The National Health Act allows for living donors to donate to a blood relative or a spouse. If the donor is not a relative, he or she must apply for special permission from the Department of Health. In South Africa – as in every other country in the world with the exception of Iran – the sale of organs is illegal.
The hesitancy to implement paired matching, although the law does not in fact prohibit it, is likely partly due to fear of abuses through monetary exchange. (It is, however, lawful for the donor to be reimbursed for “reasonable costs” associated with the transplant.)
However, Stevenson’s case shows that paired exchanges can be subjected to the same careful scrutiny as direct donations. Only after establishing that neither donor had been coerced, misled or financially incentivised, did the Department of Health give the go-ahead. Further, the pairs were not allowed to meet or communicate prior to the operation, so Stevenson has never met her actual donor.
"The successful matching is an important step towards overcoming what surgeon Francis Delmonico, who was involved in the original matching program in the US, described as “the frustration of a biological obstacle to transplantation”. However, without a registry of living donors, finding a paired match will require hours of effort, and many will not be as lucky as Stevenson."