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Alaska reaches organ and tissue donor milestone

By Carly Horton -- Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (MCT) - Gov. Sarah Palin announced April 11 that more than half of Alaska's roughly 670,000 residents have registered as organ and tissue donors.

Bruce Zalneraitis, CEO of Life Alaska Donor Services, said Alaska is the second state to make the distinction; Utah was the first.

''But Alaska is tremendous,'' Zalneraitis said. ''We've reached the 50 percent point sooner than any other state that has a registry.''

That's no easy feat for a state with 1 person per square mile (the U.S. average is about 80), where traditional means of communication are often not available. Case in point: Less than 70 percent of Alaska households have Internet access, according to statistics provided by the Census Bureau, and most people who are organ donors in other states register online, Zalneraitis said.

Alaska has bypassed the hurdle many other states face by setting up a donor registry through the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Zalneraitis said 98 percent of organ donors register through the DMV.

''Alaska was a state that had progressive legislation in this area,'' Zalneraitis said. ''From many years of research, we know most people want to be donors. But most people aren't doing anything - we don't think about death and dying on a daily basis. The registry makes it simple and effective.

''When you get your license or renew it, it's done - all the information is already in the computer. You don't have to go online, fill out forms and mail anything in. That's the biggest thing about the registry: It makes it easy for people to look up [their information], to renew it. Once you're in, you can make all those choices.''

Once they've registered, Alaskans can rest assured their wishes will be carried out after their death. According to Zalneraitis, Alaska has first-person consent, meaning organ donor registration ''is a legal binding agreement. It cannot be revoked by other people; it survives your death.''

First-person consent also removes the burden from family members of deciding what to do with your body, Zalneraitis said.

Nearly 100,000 people in the U.S. are awaiting organ donation. Of those, roughly 75 percent need kidneys. Heart, liver, pancreas, lung and small intestine transplants are also becoming increasingly common. Approximately 18 people per day die waiting for organs.

Zalneraitis said anyone can become an organ donor, but an intensive screening process prior to surgery is performed ''so we know the organ is safe and will function properly when it goes to the recipient.''

He said the number of people who can donate is actually relatively small. Most viable organs come from young, healthy people involved in fatal accidents. Because potential organ donors must be at least 18 years of age to register without parental consent, Life Alaska Donor Services travels to middle schools and high schools throughout the state encouraging young people to register as organ donors.

''It's always important to let your wishes be known to your family members, regardless of age,'' Zalneraitis said.

In Alaska and across the U.S., there is an urgent need for organ donation from racial minorities. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, some diseases of the kidney, heart, lung, pancreas and liver are found more frequently in racial and ethnic minority populations than in the general population.

Blacks, Asians and Pacific Islanders and Hispanics are three times more likely than Caucasians to suffer from end-stage kidney disease, often as the result of high blood pressure and other conditions that can damage the kidneys. American Indians are four times more likely than Caucasians to suffer from diabetes.

In addition, similar blood type is essential in matching donors to recipients. Because certain blood types are more common in ethnic minority populations, increasing the number of minority donors can increase the frequency of minority transplants.

Native Alaskans and American Indians comprise more than 15 percent of the state's total population, and Zalneraitis said there is a concerted effort by his organization to encourage this segment of the population to sign up for organ donation.

Among racial minorities there are often cultural issues and misunderstandings that prevent them from becoming organ donors, he said.

''There's often a fear of or bad experiences with medicine in general, so it does follow they would be reluctant to donate,'' he said. ''We've learned over the years to dispel myths and address cultural concerns [and] been able to increase consent in minorities over the years.''

Ancient fears plague virtually all segments of the population, he said.

''Ancient fears have to do with wondering what happens to us after we die. 'My loved one is dead, but will it cause more suffering if his kidney's taken out?' It's not rational, not logical, but the fear itself is totally real,'' he said. ''We have to learn to address those fears in a sympathetic way.''

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Copyright (c) 2008, Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.