Sharp drop in transplants and organ donations since pandemic, figures show

Organ transplantation rate fell by 32% last year compared to 2019

Spain has the highest rates of transplantation and organ donation in Europe. Photograph: iStock

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a sharp drop in transplantation and organ donation rates, new figures show.

But while most countries across Europe recorded fewer transplants and lower donations of organs due to Covid-19, Ireland was one of the worst affected.

The organ transplantation rate here fell by 32 per cent last year compared to 2019, while organ donations were down 27 per cent.

Due to the swingeing impact of Covid measures on the health service, last year Ireland fell to 18th place out of 28 countries in the EU for transplants, down from 14th place a year earlier.


For organ donations, Ireland is also mid-table, ranking 17th in Europe. This is an improvement of one place from 2019.

Patient groups forming part of the Irish Donor Network (IDN) expressed deep concern about the decline in activity, and the slippage in Ireland’s relative performance.

It called on the Government to develop a plan to bring Ireland into the top 10 EU countries for transplantation and organ donation; to increase investment in facilities and staffing; and to enact the Human Tissue Bill providing for soft opt-out organ donation.

Lung transplantation was the worst-hit programme last year, down 58 per cent, according to the latest transplant newsletter from the Council of Europe.

Heart transplants were down 42 per cent, and liver transplants fell by 45 per cent.

Kidney transplants, from both living and deceased donors, fell by 21 per cent.

The only programme to grow was pancreas transplants, though the numbers are small – two in 2019 and five in 2020.

One of the key reasons for the decline in transplants in Ireland between 2019 and 2020 is that transplant resources, including clinical staff, were diverted to treat Covid-19 patients, or because transplants and assessments were paused due to facilities being adjacent to Covid-19 wards, according to Philip Watt, chairman of the Irish Donor Network and chief executive of Cystic Fibrosis Ireland.

This is likely to explain, for example, why the heart and lung transplant programme in the Mater Hospital was most disrupted by Covid-19 compared with all transplant programmes.

Mr Watt expressed concern that Ireland was hit even harder than other EU countries as a result of Covid-19.

It’s also likely that the number of transplant assessments decreased significantly during this period, so the lengthening waiting lists for approved transplants will not give the full picture of all those who need a life-saving transplant.

Spain has the highest rates of transplantation and organ donation in Europe, with activity levels about three times higher than in Ireland.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.