Busting some organ transplant myths

Dr Harriet Etheredge (Photo: Megan de Jong)

Dr Harriet Etheredge (Photo: Megan de Jong)

Organ donation and transplant is a legally regulated, structured medical procedure that requires a highly skilled team of expertly trained health professionals. Every country in the world, including South Africa, has laws about how donation and transplant should take place. However, locally and abroad, there are myths and misconceptions about transplant that endure in the public mind. Here are a few of the more common organ donation myths in South Africa:

People are killed for their organs

In medical terms, this is not true. There are strict medical and legal requirements that must be met before an organ can be donated. There are two types of organ donation that can occur. The first is “living” donation where an adult can choose to donate an organ (e.g. a kidney) or part of an organ (e.g. a lobe of a liver) to someone else. A common example is a parent who donates to an ill child. The other type is “deceased” donation, where organs are donated from someone who has been declared “brain-dead” by two doctors (when a person is brain-dead, they have an irreversible loss of brain function and this means there is no hope of recovery).

After a person has been declared brain-dead, the first and most important step for donation is consent from the next of kin. Even if a person has signed up to be an organ donor, organs can only be donated if the next of kin give their consent. There are no exceptions to this rule; for example, if someone has a fatal accident with no personal identification at the time of their admission to hospital, their organs cannot be donated. In deceased organ donation, these laws and systems ensure that organs are only ever removed from people who are already dead, so no donor is killed in the process.

Organs are stolen from dead people in mortuaries

In medical organ transplant, this is simply not true. When a person donates an organ (liver, kidney, pancreas, heart, lungs) it is very important that the organs remain healthy. To ensure this happens, we connect a brain-dead organ donor to machines that keeps the blood pumping through their body. When a person is transferred to a mortuary, the organs can no longer be used for transplant because there is no longer any blood flow, the organs degenerate and cannot be used.

People from other countries are stealing organs that should go to South Africans

This is incorrect. In South Africa, the National Health Act— which is the main law guiding organ donation — states that organs from South African donors can only be given to South African citizens and permanent residents, unless the minister of health provides written permission for a person from another country to receive an organ. In these cases, permission is usually only given if the person receiving the organ brings a living donor with them to donate the organ.

Removing organs is like “a bunch of vultures”

In order for organ transplantation to happen, surgeons have to remove the organs from the body of the donor and put them into the body of the recipient. This procedure is called organ retrieval and during the process great respect is accorded to ensure the dignity of the donor. After the organs have been removed, a surgeon closes the body of the donor, and it is almost impossible to tell from looking at the body that organs have been donated.

Getting an organ transplant is a cure

It is true that when people are very ill, and they have organ failure, a transplant can save their lives. However, transplant should not be seen as a cure for a disease. When a person receives an organ, they are effectively swapping one chronic condition for another. Transplant recipients have to take medication every day for the rest of their lives to prevent the organ from being rejected. There may be side effects from this medication and recipients will be required to go for regular check-ups and tests to check their donated organ is working fine. Recipients may also have to modify their lifestyles to ensure that their organ stays healthy. But generally it is true that recipients feel much better, and can return to living almost normal lives.

We don’t support organ donation because of our culture

When discussing organ donation, you sometimes hear people say: “I don’t support organ donation because it is against my culture.” It is true that different religious and cultural groups hold differing beliefs. But it is also true that there are many individuals who strongly believe in organ donation, even though their cultural or religious group does not. As a society, we need to remember that the number of donors in South Africa is very low and there are many ill people who would benefit greatly from the donation of an organ. Most people never think about organ transplantation until either they themselves are ill, or one of their loved ones is ill and needs an organ. This has to change if we are going to help one another. 

Wrriten by Dr Harriet Etheredge and Dr June Fabian

Transplant Centres in South Africa

Organ Donor Foundation: Transplant centres in South Africa


Universitas Hospital — State

Kidney – adults

Netcare Universitas Hospital — Private

Kidney – adults


Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital — Private

Kidney – adults; Heart – adults and children

Netcare UCT Private Academic Hospital — Private

Kidney and Heart – adults

Groote Schuur Hospital — State

Kidney, Liver, Heart – adults

Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital — State

Kidney, Liver, Heart — children

Tygerberg Hospital — State

Kidney – adults


Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital — State

Kidney – adults

Entabeni Hospital – Life Healthcare — Private

Kidney – adults

Ethekwini Hospital & Heart Centre

Heart, Lung – adults

Netcare St. Augustine’s Hospital — Private

Kidney, Heart – adults


Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital — State

Kidney – adults and children, Kidney, Pancreas – adults

Netcare Garden City Clinic — Private

Kidney – adults, Kidney, Pancreas – adults

Netcare Milpark Hospital — Private

Kidney, Heart, Lung, Pancreas – adults

Heart / Lung – children

Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre — Private

Kidney, Liver – children

Kidney, Liver, Pancreas — adults


George Mukhari Hospital — State

Kidney — adults

Netcare Jakaranda Hospital — Private

Kidney – adults

Pretoria Academic Hospital — State

Kidney— adults

Eye banks (corneal transplants for adults and children)

Eyebank Foundation of South Africa (Cape Town)

Gauteng Cornea & Eye bank (Johannesburg)

KwaZulu-Natal Cornea & Eye Association (Durban)

Goosen Eyebank (Port Elizabeth)

Adapted from: www.odf.org.za/2013-06-11-09-17-45/transplant-centers-of-south-africa.html