People are shying away from donating their eyes because of the ‘yuck factor’, the NHS has warned amid a shortage.
One in 10 organ donors opts out of donating their eyes, data from NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) revealed – despite them being willing to donate their hearts, livers and kidneys.
As well as being too squeamish, families often refuse to consent to their loved ones’ eyes being taken.
Emma Winstanley, lead nurse for NHSBT’s Tissue and Eye Services, said this could be due to the old adage of ‘eyes being the window to the soul’.
People are shying away from donating their eyes because of the ‘yuck factor’, the NHS warned amid shortage of the organs for sight-saving operations
One donation can help restore or improve the sight of up to 10 people, but the NHS are not currently receiving enough eyes.
NHSBT needs around 350 corneas in its eye banks – situated in Manchester and Bristol – to meet patient need.
But from the start of 2018 until November 23, the average number of corneas in the eye banks at any given time was 307.
‘It is a phenomenon which we call the ‘yuck factor’ – some people are squeamish about eyes,’ Ms Winstanley told the Press Association.
‘So what we find is some people are willing to donate organs and other tissues like heart valve, bone and tendons.
‘But sometimes when you ask a family member about eyes they can say ‘You can have anything you want, but not the eyes’.
‘It’s within our culture about eyes being the ‘windows to the soul’ but actually, when you really think about it, you could be saving somebody’s sight or be giving them the gift of sight. That kind of counteracts that feeling.’
Donating one’s eyes can help ‘transform’ the lives of people in need of sight-saving operations, she said.
In the last year 3,504 people in England have had their sight restored through cornea transplants.
The eye is never transplated whole from one person to another.
The cornea – the clear tissue on the front of the eye that help the eye to focus light – is one part of the eye that can be donated.
The sclera, the white part of the eye, can also be donated for reconstruction surgery. Other tissue is used for research and development.
People can donate their corneas up to 24 hours after they die and, unlike organ donation, it is not necessary for them to die in a hospital intensive care unit or A&E department to become a donor.
Donation can take place after death in hospital, in hospices or in a funeral home.
A wider pool of people can also be eye donors, including most cancer patients and people who have eye problems themselves, such as the short-sighted.
And donors can be almost any age, with an upper limit of about 85 in Britain, which is around the time the cell count drops on the corneas.
Paediatrician Dr Victoria Parsonson almost lost her sight before she received a cornea transplant.
The 35-year-old, from Birmingham, said she was ‘given the gift of sight’ and the operation ‘completely changed’ her life.
She was diagnosed with keratoconus, a progressive eye disease which causes distorted and blurred vision, when she was 16.
‘I was devastated, all I ever wanted to be was a doctor,’ she said.
But in 2001 she had the cornea transplant at Bristol Eye Hospital.
Dr Parsonson added: ‘Having a transplant completely changed my life. It helped me to help other people.
‘I like to think that I have been given the gift of sight and I hope in my career I am able to also give something back to people.
‘My donor and their family are amazing and I can’t thank them enough for what they have done for me.’
With the opt-out organ donation system, intended to be in place by 2020, hundreds more lives could be saved, as well as eyesight.
An NHS Blood and Transplant spokesman said: ‘There is evidence from countries which have introduced an opt-out approach that it can have a positive impact on the number of organ and tissue donors, which in turn leads to increasing the number of lives that are saved or improved.
‘Whatever system is in place it will always be important that people have conversations with their family about whether they wish to donate so that their decision is clear. This can make things easier for families at a very difficult time.’
WHAT IS THE OPT-OUT ORGAN DONATION SYSTEM?
The decision to adopt an opt-out organ donation system could save hundreds of lives, Prime Minister Theresa May claimed in October.
The system may be in place by April 2020 in England.
The move would mean patients will automatically signed up to be organ donors when they die, and they have to opt-out if they don’t wish to, if it goes ahead.
English campaigners have long argued for the Government to adopt such a system to increase the number of organs available.
Figures estimate that around 6,500 patients are on the waiting list for an organ that could save their life. Such lists can be as long as five years.
And last year 457 people died in England while waiting for a transplant due to the shortage of organs, NHS data showed.
Mrs May’s plan is the polar opposite of the current system, which requires healthy adults to sign up to donate their kidneys, hearts and livers when they die.
Wales became the first country in the UK to adopt the system in 2015, which was deemed a ‘significant’ and ‘progressive’ change.
Under the new opt-out system in England, family members are still given a final opportunity to not go ahead with the organ donation.
It is believed the rule only applies to those who are deemed mentally capable of giving consent.