Canadians back organ donor efforts

The life expectancy of Canadians continues to climb, particularly when compared with what is transpiring in the United States. A Canadian born in 2009 can expect to live more than 81 years, approximately three years more than his or her American neighbour.

When the current projections are compared with what was observed at the start of the 1960s, Canadians have added a full decade to their lifespan. Advances in medical technology and a functioning health-care system are usually cited as reasons to explain this success. Still, there is an issue where other countries are way ahead of Canada: organ and tissue donation.

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The federal government reports that in 2016, more than 2,800 organs were successfully transplanted in our country. This may sound like an impressive number, but more than 4,500 Canadians were on a waiting list for an organ. More than 250 died before a suitable organ became available.

Organ donation is no longer as controversial as it once may have been, and several countries around the world have seen sociological and religious changes as an opportunity to save lives.

For decades, organ and tissue donation relied primarily on an "opt-in" system. Individuals had to specifically and unequivocally state that they wanted to become organ donors.

In recent years, an "opt-out" system has been implemented in countries such as Austria, Belgium and Spain. This policy is also known as "active donor registration," and essentially mandates that every person over the age of 18 is considered an organ and tissue donor unless they specifically ask not to be included in a registry.

Earlier this year, Nova Scotia made history by enacting the first active donor registration system for organ and tissue donation after death in North America. With the unanimous passage of the Human Organ and Tissue Donation Act, the Atlantic province made every single person who has resided in Nova Scotia for at least a year a potential donor. The law allows residents who do not wish to be donors to opt out at the time of their choosing.

Nova Scotia's legislation will not go into full effect until next summer but is similar to what some countries have done in the past. Having an active donor registration or opt-out system vastly increases the chances of suitable organs reaching the patients who desperately need them.

Two European countries provide an excellent example of what this type of legislation can bring. In Austria, the opt-out system has enabled 99 per cent of available and suitable organs to reach waiting patients. In neighbouring Germany, where the system is still an opt-in, the rate is a paltry 12 per cent.

Research Co. asked Canadians about active donor registration in their province, and a majority (63 per cent) say he or she would "definitely" or "probably" like to implement this system for organ and tissue donation in their province, while only one in four (25 per cent) disagrees.

There is no gender gap in the level of support for this policy becoming a countrywide endeavour, with 63 per cent of both men and women saying they would like to see this change. All age groups - millennials, generation X and baby boomers - are also in favour of the idea.

In three Canadian provinces, two-thirds of residents (66 per cent) endorse a move to active donor registration: British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. Support is slightly lower - but still represents a majority - in Manitoba and Saskatchewan (63 per cent), Atlantic Canada (59 per cent) and Ontario (57 per cent).

The survey shows that Canadians are ready to take organ and tissue donation to the next level, as several countries have already done. A system similar to the one Nova Scotia's lawmakers unanimously endorsed is seen in a positive light by a majority of residents in every region. Legislators in Ontario are actively discussing whether to follow Nova Scotia's lead. Their counterparts in the rest of the country should join them.

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