Being an Organ Donor If You Have Hepatitis

Surgeon with organ donation
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One of the more common myths about hepatitis is that you cannot donate an organ if you have (or have had) the disease. Despite what some may tell you, people are allowed to donate even if they have acute or even chronic hepatitis B or C. In fact, over 1,000 such organs are transplanted in the U.S. each year.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), having a medical condition at your time of death doesn't automatically rule you out as a donor: To evaluate eligibility, doctors will carefully assess the state of your organ and grant or deny approval based on its condition and the type of illness involved.

While there are some diseases for which organ donations are barred (including active cancer or sepsis), even organs from people with HIV are allowed to be donated under very specific conditions.

Restrictions on Organ Donations

The laws governing organ donation from people with hepatitis have changed dramatically since the 1990s when the practice was largely banned.

The changes are due, in large part, to the introduction of newer class medications which have helped people with hepatitis C achieve cure rates once thought unimaginable. As a result, people with hepatitis are now able to donate to others with the disease whose organs are in worse shape.

Less commonly (but just as ethically), an organ may be donated to a person who doesn't have hepatitis in cases of extreme urgency. In such instance, the recipient would benefit from a fully functioning organ and be able to be treated with hepatitis medications, if needed. The practice of donating an organ in this fashion is currently rare but may become increasingly necessary if current shortfalls continue.

According to the DHHS, more than 100,000 Americans are on the ​national organ waiting list at any one time. Of these, 20 will die each day while awaiting an organ. In terms of supply, just over 30,000 organ transplants are performed each year, well short of what is needed. And, despite the fact that 95 percent of adults say they support organ donation, only 54 percent actually sign up.

Among donors with hepatitis C, the problem may be further complicated by the state of their organ at the time of their death. With hepatitis C, chronic infection can often persist for 20 years or more with few, if any, symptoms. By the time symptoms do appear, the state of the liver and other organs may be compromised to such an extent as to make them nonviable.

And, because current insurance practices are such that hepatitis C drugs are usually not approved until the disease is advanced (due to costs that run well in excess of $100,000 per treatment course), there is a greater likelihood of organ damage compared to persons of the same age without hepatitis.

How to Become an Organ Donor

To become an organ donor, you can either sign up when you renew your driver's license or register online with your state's donor registry. In doing so, it important to speak with your loved ones about your decision. In the event your death occurs suddenly or unexpectedly, advising them in advance relieves them of the responsibility of making the decision for you.

A donation from a single individual can help more people than one might expect, contributing not only a heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs but things like the pancreas, intestines, bones, corneas, tendons, and even blood vessels to people in need.

There is no age limit for donating, and even persons under 18 are allowed to register in many states.

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Article Sources
  • Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Human Resources and Service Administration. "OPTN Policies." Rockville, Maryland; updated December 12, 2017.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "U.S. Government Information on Organ Donation and Transplantation: ​Statistics at a Glance." Bethesda, Maryland; updated March 3, 2017.