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Facebook Project Facilitates Kidney Donations

  • Jessica Berman

Damon Brown sits with his wife, Bethany, as they hold their sons Theo, 3, left, and Julian, 5, at their home in Seattle. Damon Brown found a kidney on Facebook after telling his story on a special page the Seattle dad created under the name, “Damon Kidney

Damon Brown sits with his wife, Bethany, as they hold their sons Theo, 3, left, and Julian, 5, at their home in Seattle. Damon Brown found a kidney on Facebook after telling his story on a special page the Seattle dad created under the name, “Damon Kidney

On May 1, the social networking site Facebook launched a project to put people willing to donate a kidney in touch with those in need of a kidney transplant. Members who want to donate a kidney were urged to post a status update indicating that. Many experts say the move could increase the supply of donated kidneys, but they point to ethical and medical concerns.

In the United States alone, there are an estimated 114,000 people waiting for an organ transplant. The vast majority are seeking a kidney, either from a live donor - since we each have two kidneys - or someone who had agreed to donate their organs after death. Every day, 18 people in the U.S. die, waiting for a kidney to become available.

So, Facebook has begun encouraging its U.S. members who want to donate a kidney to declare their desire to do so on their page. With the number of Facebook members approaching one billion worldwide, some transplant specialists are excited that the initiative could dramatically increase the supply of live donor kidneys.

In an interview on Skype, David Fleming of Donate Life America, a Richmond, Virginia-based organization dedicated to encouraging people to donate their organs for transplant, said declaring a decision to become an organ donor on Facebook is an opportunity to save a life.

"I think it's rare in our lives here on this Earth that we have an opportunity to do something, that is going to impact, save or heal someone's life or restore sight," Fleming noted. "And what an incredible way to leave this world is to be able to offer someone else a chance at a second life, to be able to have children or get married or see their children graduate from high school or college. It's just an incredible, selfless act of kindness."

People have used Facebook to appeal for kidneys long before the website launched its live kidney donation drive. Last October, researchers at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois, decided to examine some 90 Facebook pages to see who sought kidneys and what sorts of responses they got. The pages surveyed included members between the ages of two and 69.

Lead researcher Alex Chang, a kidney specialist, found that 12 percent of the members reported receiving a kidney, while 30 percent indicated that a number of members volunteered to be tested to see whether they would be a match. On one page, seeking a kidney for a young child, 600 potential donors stepped forward.

While many Facebook members offering a kidney are well-intentioned and honest, Chang says there could be dangers in dealing with strangers on the social networking site.

For one thing, people in search of organs often reveal very private medical information. Chang says researchers also found a number of questionable offers from Facebook members, particularly in developing countries.

"You know some of them sounded pretty genuine," noted Chang. "Like they would say, 'I'm trying to complete college and I need X amount of money. And I've thought about it thoroughly and all the risks of donating a kidney, and I really want to sell my kidney to you.' And you know it's not legal, it's definitely not legal (to sell organs) in the U.S."

The sale of kidneys from living donors has been banned since 1984, when Congress passed the National Organ Transplant Act. Nevertheless, Chang says some potential donors were asking for an average of $30 - $40,000 for a kidney.

Loyola University's Alex Chang presented his findings at a recent meeting of the National Kidney Foundation. As for the social network campaign, Facebook announced that as of mid-May, more than 100,000 of its users had signed up to be live kidney donors.

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