By Andrew Rock

A severe shortage of organs for transplant in Australia has led to a bizarre and ethically questionable phenomenon: doctors have begun harvesting organs from diseased patients in the “upper age limit,” those 80 and over.

The shortage is the result of two main causes. Australia has one of the highest rates of refusal for donation in the developed world – 45% – a figure driven primarily by the wishes of the family. Additionally, a recent decrease in the number of traffic fatalities has resulted in a smaller supply of transplantable organs. To alleviate the growing disparity between supply and demand, doctors have loosened donation criteria.

“In more recent years we have moved to seeing slightly older patients with neurological damage caused by strokes or bleeds in the brain,” said Dr. Michael O’Leary. “This leads to the ‘marginal donor’. Patients who in the past would have been excluded from organ donation – either on the basis of having medical co-morbidities like high blood pressure or diabetes, or just because they are quite elderly – are now being accepted.”

The shortage has led to drastic behaviors on behalf of those in need of transplants as well. Many desperate patients are traveling to countries such as Asia in search of the organs they need.

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