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What is organ and tissue donation and transplantation?
Organ and tissue donation is a life-saving and life-transforming medical process where organs and/or tissues are removed from a donor and transplanted into someone who is very ill or dying from organ failure. Tissue donation also provides the opportunity to improve the quality of life for an individual.

What is kidney transplantation?
A transplant is a treatment for kidney failure but is not a cure. A transplant potentially offers a more active life and a longer life, free from dialysis as well as dietary restrictions. You can have a have a transplant if you are medically suitable and stable on dialysis. If the transplant is from a living donor, the operation can often be done before dialysis starts.

Are kidney transplants successful?
Kidney transplants are very successful. Over 94% of transplants are working one year later. The average wait for a deceased donor kidney is about 4 years.

Staying fit and as healthy as possible helps you remain suitable for a transplant and aids your recovery. It is a good idea to have regular health and dental checks as well as maintaining your:

  • recommended fluid and dietary restrictions
  • ideal body weight for your age and size - people who are overweight are at increased risk of problems during surgery
  • dialysis schedule
  • regular fitness or exercise plan

Why do people need transplants?
People requiring organ transplants are usually very ill or dying because of their own organ is failing. They range from young babies and children through to older people. Some need transplants because they are born with a physical problem or a disease that causes organ failure. Others may have contracted a disease or acquired an injury. Organ transplants can save lives.

People needing tissue transplants can also be of any age. In come cases, tissues can save lives. More often, they greatly improve the recipients' lives.

Not everyone with organ or tissue failure can have a transplant - people must undergo a range of test and only those who fit the appropriate criteria and will benefit are placed on the waiting list.

Which organs and tissue can be donated?
Do you know that one organ and tissue donor can save the lives of up to ten people and significantly improve the lives of dozens more. 

  • Organs - includes kidneys, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, intestines
  • Tissue - includes cornea (clear film on the front of the eye), bone, heart valves, and skin

View animation: interactive body: organs and tissues for transplant

View our KidneyHealthAus YouTube profile on organ donation and transplantation

Why is organ and tissue donation important?
One donor can save the lives of up to ten people and significantly improve the lives of dozens more. There are currently about 1,800 Australians waiting for a life-saving organ transplant.

The average waiting time ranges from one year for a liver transplant to almost four years for a kidney transplant. Sadly, at least one person dies every week while on the transplantation waiting list.

Australia’s organ transplant success rate is among the best in the world. In 2010, 309 generous Australians donated their organs and gave 799 individuals a second chance at life.

How long has Australia been doing organ and tissue transplantation?
More than 30,000 people have received transplants in Australia since the first successful kidney transplant was performed in 1965.

Why should I discuss donation with my family, partner, or close friend?
Australia currently has one of the highest success rates for organ transplantation in the world, with survival rates exceeding 90% in the first year. It is important to discuss your decision with your family, partner, or close friend. They will be an important part of the donation process and therefore should be made aware of your consent (or objection). Your family member, partner or friend may be asked about your decision to be an organ and/or tissue donor to confirm that you had not changed your mind since you recorded your consent (or objection). They may be asked questions regarding your medical history to determine which organs and/or tissue may be suitable for transplantation. The more family members who know of your decision to donate organs and/or tissue for transplantation, the more likely it is that it will occur and the more reassured they are likely to be by your decision.

Why should I consider donating my organs and tissue?
People can either become donors when they die (deceased donor), or they can donate a kidney or part of their liver while they are still alive (live donor). Live donations are usually restricted to those wanting to save the life of someone they know. One donor can save the lives of up to ten people and significantly improve the lives of dozens more. There are currently about 1,800 Australians waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. The average waiting time ranges from one year for a liver transplant to almost four years for a kidney transplant. Australia’s organ transplant success rate is among the best in the world.

Who can become an organ and tissue donor?
Almost anyone can donate organs and tissue. Even elderly people and those with chronic health conditions can be donors. People in their 80's have saved the lives of much younger people. People with cancer have been able to donate tissues. Only a few medical conditions, such as transmissible diseases like HIV, may prevent someone being a donor. A person may not be able to donate for 12 months after having a tattoo.

How do I become a donor?
There are two steps to becoming an organ or tissue donor:

Register on the Australian Organ Donor Register through Medicare - 1800 777 203
Even if a deceased person had registered their wish on the Australian Organ Donor Register, the most senior available next of kin’s consent will always be requested. For this reason it is important to discuss your decision with your family.

Children under 16 years cannot be registered on the Australian Organ Donor Register. They can be registered as an ‘intent’ until they are 18 years old, though legal consent is sought from their parents or legal guardians when they are under 18. If you are under 18, or have children, discuss donation so your family is prepared if they need to make a decision.

What is the Australian Organ Donor Register?
The Australian Organ Donor Register is the official national register for organ and tissue donation. The Register is administered by Medicare Australia, and keeps a record of a person’s wish to be a donor, and of the organs and tissues they agree to donate. Only authorised medical/healthcare personnel involved in organ and tissue donation have access to the Australian Organ Donor Register so your privacy is secure.

How does the organ and tissue donation process work?
When someone dies in a situation where they can be an organ or tissue donor, the hospital medical team makes a number of assessments and follows a series of steps:

  1. The possibility of donation is raised with the family.
  2. Australian Organ Donor Register is checked. If the person registered ‘no’, donation will not proceed. If the person registered ‘yes’ or had made no registration, a medical staff member will potentially discuss donation with the family.
  3. The family is given time to make a decision. If they agree to donation or have more questions about the process they will be introduced to a coordinator who will facilitate the process as required.
  4. The organs and or tissues are donated.

Throughout this process a coordinator continues to liaise with the family as required to provide support.

When can organ and tissue donation occur?
Organ donation requires special conditions and is possible in less than 1% of all deaths. People are around 10 times more likely to need an organ transplant than to become an actual organ donor! The most common type of deceased organ donation is ‘donation after brain death’. 

Brain death occurs when the brain swells causing a loss of blood flow and oxygen to the brain and the brain stem stops working.  Brain death is death. Swelling of the brain is caused by severe brain injury. Before and after brain death a machine known as a ventilator pushes air into the lungs which oxygenate the blood as part of circulation. At the point of brain death the ventilator continues this supply of oxygen to ensure the organs remain suitable for transplantation.

A series of special tests is done to confirm that the brain is no longer working and the person has died. Two doctors, who are not involved in transplantation, complete these tests separately to confirm brain death. Brain death can only be diagnosed in a hospital. Brain death is different to a coma. A person in a coma is unconscious but their brain is working and they may recover. People cannot recover from brain death.

When can tissue donation occur?
Tissue donation can occur in a wide range of conditions and death does not have to take place in a hospital. Tissue can be donated up to 24 hours after death. Almost anyone can donate tissue regardless of age and cause of death.

If I register as a deceased donor, will my body be used for research?
Organ and tissue donation is completely separate from donating your body for research. Your decision to be an organ or tissue donor does not permit the removal of organs or tissues for any other reasons. Donation for medical research requires separate consent and is usually arranged by contacting the Anatomy Department of your local University Medical School.

Will being a donor delay my funeral arrangements?
Being an organ or tissue donor does not delay funeral arrangements or prevent an open-casket funeral.

If I have a tattoo, will I be able to donate organs and tissue?
Yes. However, it is a good idea to disclose the location and design of any tattoos and whether the tattooist was registered to your family/friends, so that the information is passed onto the donor coordinators.

Will my religion support organ and tissue donation?
The majority of religions support or are not against organ and tissue donation and believe it is an act of charity to save or improve lives. Many religions leave it to the individual to make a choice. If you are unsure of your religion’s position on donation, it is best to discuss it with your spiritual adviser.

Will my body be disfigured if I become a deceased donor?
Removal of organs and tissues after death is no different from any other operation and is performed by highly skilled surgeons. The donor’s body is treated with respect and dignity at all times. The donation of organs and tissues does not alter the physical shape and appearance of the person. After the operation, the donor’s family are able to view their relative again if they wish.

Are there any costs involved in being a deceased donor?
The family does not pay for any organ donation or transplantation procedures that occur after brain death. This is the same for public and private hospitals.

Can I choose who will get my organs or tissues?
People who donate their organs or tissues after death cannot choose the transplant recipient. Laws protect the confidentiality of the deceased donor, the donor family and the transplant recipient. It is possible for donor families and transplant recipients to write to each other anonymously if they wish and this can be organised through your state DonateLife team.

Sign up to register your support
and set out why you feel the Australian Government's Live Organ Donor Leave Support - should continue. More here>

What is a living organ donation?
It is also possible to donate an organ while alive, although in Australia this is restricted to kidney and liver donation. Living donors must be over the age of 18 years. They can be genetically-related, such as brothers, sisters and parents or emotionally-related, including husbands, wives, in-law relatives or close friends.

  • Non-directed, living donation - A new form of living donation. Someone donates a kidney and allows it to be given to the most suitable recipient on the transplant waiting list. Contact the Kidney Transplant Coordinator in your closest transplant hospital for more information.

  • Another form of living donation is referred to as a ‘paired exchange’ - This is when there are two potential kidney donor/recipient pairs whose blood types are incompatible. The two recipients trade donors so that each recipient can receive a kidney with a compatible blood type. People willing to join the Australian paired Kidney eXchange program (AKX) should discuss this with their kidney specialist.

Have more questions regarding paired kidney donation and the AKX Program?
AKX Program Clinical Director, Professor Paolo Ferrari: call 02 9382 4411
AKX Program Co-ordinator, Claudia Woodfoore: call 02 9382 4476 or Claudia.Woodroffe@health.wa.gov.au

Australian Paired Kidney Exchange Program
Department of Nephrology,  Prince of Wales Hospital
L3 - High Street Building, High Street, Randwick NSW 2031

Who decides who will receive a donated organ or tissue?
Australia has strict ethical guidelines for allocation of organs. Allocation depends on a process that includes urgency and organ match. Other considerations include the length of time on the official transplant waiting list. There are national guidelines for deciding who will receive a donated organ or tissue in Australia.

Can people buy a donor organ in Australia?
Trade in human organs and tissue is illegal in Australia. Anyone involved would face criminal charges.

What if I’m already registered as a donor elsewhere?
It is important that you register your consent. Even if you have previously expressed an intention to donate organs or tissue, e.g. by ticking a box on a driver’s license renewal, it is important that you update your details and register to be an organ or tissue donor. Contact DonateLife>

Renal Resource Centre

From Me To You - So Your Relative Needs a Kidney?
* Introduction to Kidney Transplantation

Making a Decision about Living Organ and Tissue Donation from "Guidelines for Ethical Practice for Health Professionals"

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Updated 21 August 2015
  The material contained on this site does not constitute medical advice. It is intended for information purposes only. Published by Kidney Health Australia. Privacy Policy. For information about website content please contact the National Communications Manager.

© 2008 Kidney Health Australia

Last updated: Oct 2015.