Transplant-ready organs are ‘frequent flyers’ with delay-prone commercial airlines

Next time you’re flying with one of the major carriers, stop and consider: A lifesaving human organ may be traveling with you, albeit in the cargo hold.

And that’s not the most startling finding to come from a journalistic probe conducted by Kaiser Health News and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

This is: “Scores of organs—mostly kidneys—are trashed each year and many more become critically delayed while being shipped on commercial airliners.”

KHN has produced a detailed report from the legwork, publishing the article online Feb. 10.

Correspondent JoNel Aleccia and colleagues found that, between 2014 and 2019, flight delays of two hours or more left close to 170 organs un-transplantable. Another 370 organs barely made it in time to the intended patient and an anxious transplantation team.

One of the life-threatening blunders Aleccia describes is relayed by a transplant surgeon, Malay Shah, MD, of the University of Kentucky/UK HealthCare. Shah says a kidney he was waiting on sat in a nearby airport for three hours before anyone told him it was there—despite its being in a box prominently labeled “Human Organ for Transplant.”

“It’s scary,” Shah tells the investigators. “Organs traveling by this mechanism are treated as simply ‘baggage’ or ‘cargo.’”

Paul Conway of the American Association of Kidney Patients says wasted organs represent losses to not only affected patients but also their communities.

He asks: “With all of the advances going on with drugs, with medical procedures, how can you have a logistics error be the barrier” to human organ transplantation?

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