UM doctors cut blacks' wait time for kidneys

Transplant program seeks donors from family, friends of patients

April 26, 2002|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Surgeons at University of Maryland Medical Center say they have reduced the barriers facing African-Americans needing kidney transplants, cutting in half the amount of time they wait for the operation.

Dr. Clarence E. Foster III, a UM transplant surgeon, reported yesterday that black patients wait an average of 681 days for a kidney transplant at the Baltimore hospital, about half the 1,335-day waiting period for black patients nationally.

Foster, who presented the data yesterday at a conference of the American Surgical Association in Hot Springs, Va., said the hospital has achieved this, in part, by encouraging black family members and friends to become living donors.

"The African-American community is not often aware that they can be living donors," said Foster. "We're willing to go out and seek potential donors in their own families."

Attracting African-American donors has been a problem confronting transplant programs across the United States. Distrust of the medical establishment and a lack of education about the benefits of transplantation have been blamed.

Finding donors for black patients is a critical problem because kidney failure, along with such underlying causes as hypertension and diabetes, is more common among blacks.

While African-Americans can receive kidneys from donors of all races, they are more likely to find a suitable match from donors of the same race, Foster said.

This is because donors and recipients are matched not only by blood type, but also by "surface antigens" -- proteins lying on cell surfaces -- that tend to run within ethnic groups, Foster said.

For the comparisons, Foster used waiting-period statistics from 1991 to last year kept by the United Network for Organ Sharing, an independent group based in Virginia.

Despite the recent strides at UM, black patients still wait longer for kidney transplants there than do nonblack patients, who face an average wait of 391 days. The UM waiting time for nonblack patients also is well below the national average of 734 days.

In addition to their efforts seeking donors, doctors at UM have also taken the step of matching donor kidneys carrying hepatitis C with recipients who are similarly infected.

Such organs have traditionally been excluded from the donor pool because they can transmit a chronic liver infection. But doctors now recognize that there is no harm matching them to patients already infected.

Kidneys infected with hepatitis C are taken only from cadaver donors, he said. People who are infected with hepatitis C cannot afford to become living donors because losing a kidney might compromise their health.

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