Dr. Jacob Lavee in The Medical Post

Israelis leading way in venturing out for organs

by Celia Milne

TEL HASHOMER, ISRAEL – Because of extremely low organ donation rates at home, Israelis are among the most likely in the world to buy organ transplants elsewhere. And their health maintenance organizations and private insurance companies have been reimbursing them for it. “No doubt this transplant tourism is the direct result of the long waiting lists here in Israel,” said Dr. Jacob Lavee, director of the Heart Transplantation Unit and deputy director in the department of cardiac surgery at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, Israel.

Over the last few years, it is estimated that about 200 Israelis have travelled to China for kidney transplants and about 15 have sought heart transplants. Several dozen others have bought kidney transplants in the Philippines, said Dr. Lavee, a representative of Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting. Israel’s donation rate is very low, at nine donors per million population, compared with more than 20 per million in most western European countries and the U.S. The country is in the midst of passing a law that will help bring it more in line with these other countries. The new law will ban reimbursement of transplants in countries where organ donation is not performed according to internationally accepted ethical rules, said Dr. Lavee. Already, HMOs and insurance companies have stopped reimbursing these transplants.

One of the features of the new law, which is designed to increase the local donation rate, is prioritizing those who sign their donor cards. If and when they are in need of a transplant themselves, they are given priority. “This turns the donor cards into a kind of personal transplant insurance policy,” said Dr. Lavee. Public awareness of the benefits to society of organ donation may help to boost the donation rates in Israel. Several studies have tried to get at the heart of why the organ donation rate is so low. “All of them have come up with similar results, namely the misperception by the public of the Jewish religion attitude toward organ donation,” said Dr. Lavee. “While most rabbis, except for a small minority of ultra-orthodox rabbis who reject the concept of brain death, are in favour of organ donation and consider it as a noble deed, the vast public, who is not even religious but considers itself traditional, somehow misconceives this idea.