MSPs back Evening Times organ campaign

The Evening Times campaign to introduce a soft opt out organ donation scheme has received cross-party support from MSPs.

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Editor Tony Carlin and health reporter Caroline Wilson gave evidence in support of their Opt for Life petition to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee today.

The petition, which was launched last October, aims to help save more patients waiting for life-saving transplants by introducing an opt out procedure, where consent to donate is presumed unless the deceased indicated otherwise in life.

It has already received over 18,000 signatures and has been backed by the British Medical Association, Scotland Patients Association, Kidney Research UK, British Heart Foundation, the Kidney Federation, Diabetes UK and the Cystic Fibrosis Trust.

Labour has now urged the Scottish Government to bring forward legislation similar to the proposals going through the Welsh Assembly and says it will take the initiative through a Members Bill if ministers fail to act.

The petition has now been continued for further evidence.

Evening Times editor Tony Carlin said: “Every year in the UK three people die, usually needlessly, because of a shortage of suitable organs for transplantation.

“The Scottish Government has to be commended for its incredible work over the past 5 years in increasing the number of people who have signed up to the organ donor register. However, the fact remains that, despite an overwhelming number of people backing the principals of donation, fewer than half of the Scottish population have signed up to the register.

“Opt Out or presumed consent offers the possibility of delivering hope to those who will die in these years waiting in vain for the phone to ring. That is why we are calling for a move to soft opt out where the presumption is that each person wishes to donate their organs. Families will still be consulted but the conversation will start on the basis that the deceased had made a choice to donate.

“A universal, easy and accessible opt out process is absolutely deliverable. Every year we wait desperate people die.”

Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: "We know hundreds of people are currently waiting for an organ donation and we know that 90% of people support organ donation. Yet, despite the Scottish Government's very commendable efforts, only something like half of that number are registered as organ donors.

"So there's a huge opportunity there that we can capitalise on.

"An overwhelming majority of that number, I believe somewhere in the excess of 70% in Scotland, support a shift for a soft opt out system of organ donation. This operates very much on the basis of presumed consent but families must still be consulted, so there are safeguards in that proposed system.

"For me the clinchers was opt out systems in other countries show a 30% increase on donation rates, and that frankly means saving lives.

"Soft opt out is Labour party policy but this isn't something that I regard as a party political issue. Alex Neil, before he became Health Secretary, also supported a soft opt out system so I am very hopeful that we can make progress on that basis.

"My colleague Drew Smith has announced his intention to take forward a Members Bill based on the Bill introduced by our colleagues in the Welsh Assembly, if the Government is not prepared to legislate."

Committee convener David Stewart said soft opt out "is clearly something that any right thinking person would want to support" but said some have concerns about the "ethical, medical and legal issues surrounding it".

Vice-convener Chic Brodie described it as "a laudable campaign" but said "it could throw up some emotional difficulties, particularly with children".

SNP MSP John Wilson said: "It would be incumbent on any government and health service to continue to remind people of the soft opt out position, particularly with families."

Adam Ingram, also an SNP MSP, voiced the concerns of health professionals who fear that "the element of trust that is essential between clinicians and patients might be put under strain if people feel that during end-of-life care people are being looked at for organ harvesting".

MSPs also faced calls to make more information available about risks associated with organ donation.

The family of a woman who died from skin cancer following a lung transplant told Holyrood's Public Petitions Committee that they were unaware of the cancer risks associated with a common anti-rejection drug.

While they stressed that they are not against organ donation or the continued use of the drug ciclosporin, they said patients should be made more aware of the potential side-effects in order to make an informed choice.

Grant Thomson, whose partner Sharon Argue died from skin cancer after an organ transplant, said: "The consultant who was treating Sharon said about an hour before she died that unfortunately the likelihood of her cancer was the result of the medication she was taking subsequent to her kidney transplant.

"Ciclosporin, an immunosuppressant medication which prevents the body rejecting the new organ, was referred to by the consultant as chemotherapy as it is an extremely toxic treatment.

"It's an essential drug. If patients aren't provided with it, the transplant will fail in 99.9% of cases. So I want to be clear that this petition is not a campaign against ciclosporin.

"I'm sure if someone was given the option of six months to live unless you have a transplant but there is a high risk that you will develop skin cancer post-op, that they would without doubt take the transplant.

"Ciclosporin is a miracle drug that has given life to tens of thousands of people since its immunosuppressant qualities were discovered in the 1970s. However, there is an issue regarding understanding amongst the medical profession and patients about just how toxic and damaging this medication could be."

Information from the Scottish Parliament Information Centre stated that transplant patients are 14 times more likely to develop skin cancer and twice as likely to develop other cancers.

Miss Argue's family said doctors in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde did not make her aware of the side-effects when they carried out the transplant.

The family said that when a spot emerged on her ear she consulted three separate doctors in NHS Lanarkshire who did not suspect it was cancerous, despite her increased risk.

One month later she was dead.

Labour MSP Anne McTaggart said: "I'm just flabbergasted that this kind of information isn't readily available. We (MSPs on the committee) weren't aware before your petition that there was a side-effect. It should be screaming from screens that this is part of it.

"I can't tell you how much this saddens and angers me."

The petition for greater awareness of cancer risk associated with organ donation was also continued for further evidence.

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