What you should know about organ and stem cell transplants

Patients living with various illnesses such as cancer or conditions that impact a vital organ, whose conditions are worsening, often look to receive an organ or stem cell transplant. There are a few important factors that transplant recipients should know about.

The waiting list
There are approximately 4,300 Canadians on the waiting list for an organ donation. A single donor can save up to eight lives and benefit dozens of others by helping to restore eyesight, repair tissue damage and more. Unfortunately, due to a shortage of donors about 250 people will pass away every year while waiting for a donor.

With less than a quarter of all Canadians registered as organ donors, you can potentially save lives by registering as a donor with your provincial health ministry.

You can also be what’s known as a “living donor.” The most common organ donated from a living donor is the kidney – healthy people have two, but only need one to live a normal life. Parts of other organs, including the liver and lungs, can also be donated.

A viral threat
Vulnerable Canadians such as transplant recipients, infants, older adults, or the immunocompromised can be susceptible to many viruses or infections.

There is a common virus called cytomegalovirus (CMV) that as many as half of all Canadian adults are exposed to a least once in their lifetime. With a healthy immune system to fight it off, most don’t even know about it.

After a transplant operation, patients must take medication that suppresses the immune system to help prevent the body from rejecting the new organ or stem cells they’ve received. Because of side effects from immunosuppression, patients often have a harder time fighting off infections such as CMV, which can be life threatening.

Transplant recipients can be exposed to CMV in three ways: through contact with bodily fluids of someone positive with CMV, a revived form if they previously had an infection or the virus may be in the transplanted organ or stem cells.

Symptoms of CMV can include fever, muscle pain, joint pain, an inflamed liver and various blood disorders. In transplant recipients it can have severe impacts including causing their body to reject the new organ and even death.

If you or a family member is undergoing a transplant procedure, talk to your doctor about the risks of CMV and what you can do about it.

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