Organ transplants from HIV-positive donors to HIV-positive patients weighed by lawmakers

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Capital News Service

LANSING — If Michigan residents with HIV could donate their organs to other people with HIV, it could mean another 1,000 organs available for transplant, experts say.

The HIV Organ Policy Equity (HOPE) Act to do just that was approved by House lawmakers and is now before the full Senate.

Congress banned such transplants in 1984 during the growth of AIDS and HIV cases. Donations from people with HIV were banned also because HIV was considered a death sentence in the 1980s.

But treatment has since improved dramatically.

And laws allowing the practice have been passed in 21 states and the District of Columbia since 2015, according to the Gift of Life Michigan, the state’s federally designated organ and tissue recovery program based in Ann Arbor.

“It has resulted in hundreds of life-saving transplants throughout the country,” said Dr. Christopher J. Sonnenday, dthe irector of the University of Michigan Transplant Center that has performed kidney and liver transplants for HIV-positive recipients for 15 years.

A similar bill introduced a couple years ago ran out of time in the legislative process before it was passed or rejected, said Rep. Felicia Brabec, D-Pittsfield Township, who introduced the HOPE Act for the second time. 

Organs of HIV-positive people now leave Michigan and are transplanted in other states, Brabec said. She said the legislation’s goal is to “save Michiganders’ lives.”

Supporters say it could dramatically increase the number of organs available for patients in need of them.

“About 1,000 additional organs will be available for transplantation per year,” said Dorrie Dils, the chief executive officer of Gift of Life Michigan.

“Patients with HIV infection have a higher risk of kidney disease, and HIV-positive patients with kidney disease face more complications and a higher risk of death,” Sonnenday said. 

That means kidney transplants are especially beneficial to them, he said.

Also, as patients with HIV receive better treatment and live longer, they are more apt to suffer from other diseases that put them in need of a transplant. 

“There is a growing need for transplantation in the HIV-positive community,” he said.

Also, HIV-positive organs will not be placed into patients without HIV, Sonnenday said. That means there will be more organs available for people without HIV. according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit national transplant system.

Paula Sirls, now 58, had a liver transplant after her liver was damaged due to long-term medication treatment with antiretroviral therapy. It took 10 years from the beginning of the disease to transplantation. 

“I was beginning to get ill. I had yellowing of the eyes, my skin was itchy, my legs were swollen, my energy was fading away. I was very lethargic daily,” said Sirls, of Pontiac, who also has HIV.

She received a liver transplant from an 18-year-old woman.

Sirls and her husband, Felix, are both HIV activists who advocate for destigmatizing people with HIV. After her transplant, she signed up to the list of donors in the Gift of Life Michigan.

“I think it is a good idea because there are many people who are probably HIV-positive waiting to be organ transplant recipients,” Paula said. “I would be honored to be a part of the action to speak with legislatures about this whole movement.”

To join donors or recipients, visit the Gift of Life Michigan website or call 866-500-5801.

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