Years of living with chronic hepatitis C virus infection (HCV) destroyed my friend Rick’s liver. Last year, a liver transplant saved his life. A motor vehicle accident killed a 19-year-old man, and now Rick is healthy. Not a day passes, that Rick doesn’t say thank you for the life of the man whose liver restored Rick’s health.

The same year Rick received his liver, I lost three friends who would have lived had hepatitis C been diagnosed earlier and they could have had a chance at liver transplantation. Rick was incredibly fortunate to have received a liver, because there is a major organ shortage in the U.S. According to the American Liver Foundation, approximately 17,000 people are on the liver transplant list. Of these, 6000 people were transplanted; 1500 to 1700 people died before they could receive a liver.

Chronic liver failure caused by complications from HCV is the most common reason for adult liver transplantation in the United States. Cirrhosis caused by long-term alcohol abuse is the second leading cause. The majority of people living with HCV will never progress to the point where transplantation will be necessary. Liver transplantation is a complicated surgery, requiring lifelong follow-up care. Liver transplant patients have an approximately 86% one-year and 78% three-year survival rate.

Most liver transplants use deceased donors. However, the liver’s remarkable ability to regenerate allows us to use partial livers from living donors. A living donor doesn’t have to be a blood relative, but must have a compatible blood type. About 40% to 60% of the donor’s liver is removed. Within eight weeks, the livers of both the donor and the recipient are usually completely regenerated. The average donor recovers in about two months; recipients recover in roughly six to 12 months.

Although living liver transplantation sounds like the perfect way to address the organ shortage, it isn’t.  The potential risk to the donor is so high that live liver donations are done only when the potential risk to the donor is small and the potential benefit to the recipient is unquestionable. It is difficult to find current data on live liver transplantation, but it appears that there are 250 to 400 liver donor transplants a year. One in 300 donors die and about 30% suffer a complication. Many living donors who die are relatives of the recipients. One can only imagine how difficult it might be to live with the knowledge that you are alive, but your otherwise healthy donor is not.

Although increasing the donor organ pool is important, a better plan is to reduce the organ demand. Screening, linkage to care, and treating hepatitis C patients will reduce the number of liver transplant procedures needed. When I began working in this field, hepatitis C patients who were transplanted would still have HCV. This meant the transplanted liver was reinfected, and in some cases, it too would progress to cirrhosis. Now we can cure hepatitis C, which greatly cuts down on the stress to the transplanted organ and diverts the need for a second transplant.

Other strategies that will reduce the demand for livers are:

  • Immunizing all children against hepatitis B
  • Implementing awareness programs to reduce liver-injury risk, such as from alcohol, drug, and dietary supplement use
  • Raise awareness of the impact of diet on the liver. Fatty liver disease is on the rise in the U.S., which in turn causes a decrease in the number of viable livers.
  • Increase the organ donor pool. For instance, countries that use an “opt-out” strategy have much higher donor rates. “Opt-out” means that everyone is a potential donor unless otherwise indicated. For instance, Germany uses an opt-in system and 12% of its population consents to donate. Neighboring Austria uses an opt-out system, and has a consent rate of nearly 100%. The U.S. uses an “opt-in” strategy.

In some cases, patients whose hepatitis C is cured, may be potential organ donors. This situation is considered if the organ is in good shape, and the recipient would otherwise die. The recipient is given the option to decline the HCV antibody-positive organ. Compared to HCV antibody-negative organs, the long-term survival rate in patients who received an HCV antibody-positive/viral load-negative organ are similar. So, if you are cured of HCV, celebrate by filling out your organ donor card. Ask family and friends to fill theirs out too.

Additional Resources
Donate Life America
National Living Donor Assistance
Organ Procurement and Transplant Network
Transplant Living
United Network for Organ Sharing

This article is reprinted from the HCV Advocate, April 2015. To find sources used for this article and links to further information, click here. Copyright 2015 with permission from the HCV Advocate and Lucinda Porter.