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No, organ donors not alive when organs harvested. This harmful meme risks lives

A meme shared on Facebook in South Africa declares: “Organ Donors are Alive when their Organs are Harvested, they are just injected with a Paralyzer, but no Anesthesia.”

It shows the face of a person apparently undergoing surgery, their eyes taped shut and a tear rolling down one cheek.

But are organ donors actually alive when their organs are harvested for transplant?


This is dangerous health misinformation that could cost lives.

An organ donor pledges, when they are alive, to donate their internal organs after they die to people with life-threatening conditions.

The donation happens when the donor is brain dead, but their body still connected to life support machinery. Their internal organs – the heart, liver, pancreas, kidneys and lungs – are harvested and then transplanted into people who need the organs to stay alive.

In this way a single person can save the lives of seven other people, according to South Africa’s Organ Donor Foundation (ODF). The foundation helps people register as organ donors, maintains a database of organ donors, and trains hospital staff and the public about organ donation.

Two doctors test for brain death

The organs are only harvested when the donor’s brain is dead, even if some of their body’s functions are kept going by life support.

“A patient cannot recover from brain death,” says Understanding Brain Death, a guide for patients and their families produced by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the US.

But how do doctors know that someone is really dead?

Brain death happens in two ways.

One is when no blood or oxygen can reach the brain, because the heart and lungs have stopped working. “Without oxygen or blood, the brain dies,” the guide says.

“The other is when the entire brain has stopped working.”

Two doctors have to perform detailed tests before a person can be declared brain dead, according to the ODF. These doctors are completely independent of the doctors who will harvest and transplant the organs.

“The criteria for brain death are very strictly adhered to and accepted medically, legally and ethically in South Africa and internationally,” the ODF says.

Organ donors are always dead

The meme has been circulating on Facebook for at least four years.

It was investigated by US fact-checking site Snopes in 2015, and rated unproven.

Snopes found that organ donors are always dead, whether the death was caused by the failure of the heart or the brain. “No living patients are ever subjected to organ harvesting,” Snopes says in its report.

Snopes asked an unnamed US bioethicist about the claim. The expert said organ donors “have to be determined to be dead before organs can be removed, meaning that they have either had their heart stop permanently or been determined to be brain dead”. 

This was “under law”, the bioethicist said. Laws in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria all stipulate that organ donors must be declared dead by doctors before their internal organs can be harvested and donated to the patients who need them.

“Brain dead individuals are legally dead,” the bioethicist told Snopes. “They are in a state of irreversible coma, will never regain consciousness or have a meaningful recovery, and cannot experience pain.”

The expert added: “There has never been a person who was accurately determined to be brain dead who regained consciousness or recovered.”

But what about the black market?

The false meme only talks about “organ donors”. Donors are people who choose, when they are alive, to donate their organs after their death, to help other people stay alive.

But what about the unlawful harvesting and sale of organs?

The idea that fragile internal organs can be easily sold on the black market is a myth, says Core, the Center for Organ Recovery and Education in the US .

First, it’s illegal pretty much everywhere in the world – including in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria.

Second, harvesting and transplanting organs is a complex and specialised procedure – far more complicated than an illegal enterprise could achieve without being exposed.

Transplantation is a highly specialised process

Organ transplantation requires “involvement from highly trained medical professionals, the process of matching donors with recipients, the need for modern medical facilities, and the support required for transplantation”, Core explains.

But there are reports of an illegal or hidden trade in organs – known as organ trafficking. Some reports say organs necessary for life – the heart, liver, pancreas and lungs – are taken, leading to the death of the unwilling donor.

There are more reports of kidney trafficking, in which people living in poverty sell a kidney to prolong the lives of wealthy patients. We have two kidneys. We can survive with only one, but only at a serious risk to our health.

These are distressing reports and outside the scope of this check.

But the fact remains that ordinary organ donors, people who want to donate their organs after they die, are not alive when their organs are used to save the lives of up to seven other people. – Africa Check

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