"Bringing back hope to patients on waiting lists all over Europe"
Message from Vytenis Andriukaitis, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety
Today we celebrate the 18th European Day for Organ Donation and Transplantation. I am in Lithuania where I have come from a very fitting engagement - a conference in honour of the 30th anniversary of the first heart transplant here in my home country. This is such an emotional event for me. As some readers may know, I was a heart surgeon before entering politics, and I had the privilege to take part in that first heart transplant in Lithuania. That moment made such an impression on me that I still remember everything as if it happened just yesterday. It also of course marked a great turning point in medicine and therefore it counts as one of the highlights of my career.
The watershed moment for organ donation came a bit earlier – in 1954 when the first successful kidney transplant took place. Since then, transplantation of a variety of organs has steadily increased in the EU due to a combination of surgical advances, better coordination between clinical teams, improved transport and safety standards for organs, and an increase in cross-border exchange of organs.
Above all, the progress has been made thanks to higher donation rates, as no transplant can take place without a donor. Indeed, I would like first and foremost to seize the occasion by paying homage to the countless everyday heroes in the EU who have helped to extend and save hundreds of thousands of lives. Their contribution cannot be overstated.
Although there has been a 14% increase in organ transplants between 2010 and 2015 in the EU (source: Council of Europe), 16 patients still die every day waiting for the organs they need. More progress is clearly needed if we are to bring back hope to patients on waiting lists all over Europe, and I remain committed to harnessing all available EU tools to achieve this goal.
Firstly, I want to build on the progress achieved through the 2010 EU Directive on quality and safety standards for organs for transplantation and the parallel Action Plan to support the sharing of experiences and knowledge between EU countries. An evaluation report on the 2008-2015 Action Plan will soon be published and will clearly illustrate that pooling resources and knowledge across the EU can significantly improve clinical outcomes.
One example of our efforts to build on the momentum of the Action Plan is in the area of organ sharing between EU countries – which is a proven way to help patients on waiting lists. An IT tool recently developed by the FOEDUS Joint Action aims to find suitable organs beyond one's home country. In just two years, almost 90 transplants have taken place, mainly in children – transplants that otherwise would not have been possible.
I also want to harness the potential of a promising new initiative: European Reference Networks (ERNs), launched earlier this year. These are 'virtual' networks involving healthcare providers across Europe which aim to tackle complex or rare diseases and conditions that require highly specialised treatment and a concentration of knowledge and resources. As no country alone has the knowledge and capacity to treat all rare and complex diseases, I consider ERNs to be one of the most important and innovative cross-European cooperative initiatives in healthcare.
Of the 24 ERNs currently operating, one, "TRANSPLANT-CHILD", focuses on paediatric transplantation. This ERN brings together experts in paediatric transplantations and post-transplantation care to improve outcomes for children and their families. This network aims to reduce hospitalisation time and the costs associated with transplantation, and to harmonise paediatric transplantation care to minimise the risks of post-transplantation complications.
While all the progress made in the past decades is welcome, we cannot be complacent or pretend that our achievements to date are sufficient. As long as thousands of patients across the EU remain on transplant waiting lists, all of us – policy makers, competent authorities, healthcare providers, health professionals, patients and researchers alike, need to redouble our efforts and work together to transform these bold initiatives into real and lasting success.