Ben Stemper est secrétaire général du Jugendparlament et membre du Parlement Européen des Jeunes.
Here I stand, a random 18-year old teenager, yet you know all these well renowned people. and not even a month ago, I had to ask my parent’s permission to travel alone. Why, you might ask, is he standing here? The reason I stand here is because I am secretary general of the Luxembourgish Youth Parliament. And I thank the organisers of tonight’s conference very much for giving the Youth a voice.
Today, I want to talk to you about blood, organ and stem cell donations. Why, you may ask, is he talking about this specific problem? After all, there are many more problems that need to be treated. I speak for the Youth Parliament, and we have dozens of resolutions prepared about many different topics, from reducing the voting age to legalising cannabis. So why exactly this specific topic? Because it is a topic that receives very little attention, mostly because it has to do with death, which we believe to have successfully banished from our minds. We don’t like to think about death, or anything related to death. And organ, blood and stem cell donations are inherently related to death. 50% of Luxembourgers are, according to a survey, critical towards organ donation. One should use every opportunity that exists to decrease this number. Because every time someone becomes active in the process of organ, blood or stem cell donations, another life can be saved. The problem is continuous, persisting and as urgent today as ever.
In 2015, 14.560 people in Europe waited for an organ transplantation. Only 7.677 got one. In Luxembourg, on average, 65 people are waiting for an organ donation per year, and luckily, 2/3rd of those patients actually get their organ. Yet, this is not due to any specific generosity of Luxembourgers when it comes to donating. On the contrary, according to Eurotransplant, Luxembourg ranks last of the member states with 5 donations per year per million inhabitants, which explains by itself the urgent need to tackle this problem.
In 2015, the luxembourgish Red Cross gained 933 new blood donors, which seems as quite a lot, doesn‘t it? It isn’t, sadly. The same time those 933 were gained, 1253 donors were lost, and the minimum of 440 needed blood conserves was missed by 140.
Finally, stem cells. Stem cells are elementary when it comes to cancer treatment, as it is the only means for people who suffer from „disturbed“ bone marrow to recover, because else they would die. To set this into context, and to give you a better grasp on the importance of the topic, I want to give you the example of leukaemia, so-called blood cancer. Leukaemia patients who have received bone marrow donations have a survival chance of 40-80%, depending on their age.
But the event tonight is not only about pointing out. It is also, first and foremost, about proposing solutions. Concrete solutions, which will help to improve the current situation and guarantee a better life for each and everyone of us.
Firstly, the Youth Parliament demands the introduction of a register of oppositions to organ donations, as it already exists in countries like Belgium and France, where it is considered a best practice. Every citizen would have to decide upon turning 18 whether or not he or she is opposed to having his/her organs transplanted after their death. Otherwise, they are considered as potential donors under luxembourgish law. Such a register would also eliminate any need to consulting with a grieving family. Another benefit is that it cannot be lost or break, contrary to the current „Passeport de Vie“. Of course, people will always be able to chang their decision during their lifetime, but this practice would greatly increase the number of donors and thus decrease the number of deaths related to organ failure.
Do you know the opening hours the Centre de transfusion sanguine, the only transfusion centre opened every weekday? It closes either at 4 or 6 pm, depending on the day. Now, how can a typical nine to five private employee be able to donate his blood? The procedure itself takes around 30-40 minutes, over an hour including transport to the centre. Tough luck for such an employee to actually find time to donate. SO why not open the centre until 8? Or open it on Saturdays? Why not dismantle institutional barriers that prevent donations?
Why are gay men still per se excluded from donating blood? I know, I know, apparently they have a higher risk level for being infected with AIDS. At least, that’s the justification from decades ago, when homosexuals were not nearly as accepted as they are today. And I do understand that they might have a higher risk of AIDS infection, BUT every person who wants to donate blood is subjected to blood analysis and screenings to determine their safety as a donor. So why generally exclude homosexuals?
Finally, stem cell donations. When my sister, three years ago upon turning 18, walked into one of the 4 only laboratories in the country to perform stem cell donor registration, she was told that no, they would not do this. She had to show them the webpages she had found it on, they had to make calls to find out that yes, they were responsible for doing this. I was-and still am- shocked about this incident. Because it shows us how few people actually go and register themselves for a future stem cell donation. Because it shows how few people actually know about the problematics.
I am very happy that the situation has improved from then, as this did not happen when I went there a few days ago. But why do so few people register themselves. It is the lack of information. Most people are afraid of risks, they fear someone meddling with their backbone or other harmful consequences. But actually, most people just get stem cell enriched blood taken. I feel that if a lot more of information about stem cell donations would be transmitted, and maybe, just maybe, mobile registration stand would be put up, say, around the city, a lot more people would take the decision to donate.
To finish, I have this idea truning around in my head. When I walk past someone who lies on the ground, injured, and I turn the other way, I can be prosecuted because of non-assistance.What if we would apply the same to people unwilling to donate or be screened? Because where is the substantial difference between a leukaemia patient in dire need of a stem cell transplantation or a car crash victim?
After all this talk you might ask why, why do we even have this issue? Why are people unwilling to donate blood, donate organs, to let themselves be tested and screened for stem cell donations?
Partially, it is, as previously stated, the information, or lack thereof. Most news stories about organ donations more often than not tend to talk about smuggling, the negatives. Rarely is there a discussion about the root issues, about possible solutions. Just think for a second about the reason organ smuggling exists. It is, simply put, purely economical. Demand and Supply. As mentioned above, in Europe alone more than 14.000 people await their organ, and only around half of them get one. Demand is high. Supply is low. Smuggling is lucrative. If ervyone, upon their death, would have their organs donated, supply would be so much higher, smugglling wouldn’t make any profits anymore and die out.
Then again, people procrastinate. I mean, there is always something more important right now, right?
Say, a trip to the shopping mall.
Taking out your dog for a walk.
Tidying up your house.
An important appointment with your best friend you really can’t cancel, as you have already canceled it the last time because you had another really important appointment.
Let’s just go tomorrow. Or the day after. Or…well, the day after. I mean, what does it make for a difference? One or two days?
It makes all the difference in the world. The patient lying in his bed, suffering from cancer, not knowing if he will survive the next day, if he will ever see his family again, for him it DOES make a difference if you go to the laboratory today. Or tomorrow. His life depends on a donation, and it depends on a quick one. And be honest, we all know it. We all know what our non-actions will entail. We know that people will die while we sit on our couch, or walk through the shopping mall. And yet we don’t do it.
To conclude with the words of the american punk band Anti Flag, „We are all human. It‘ time to prove it.“
Thank you for listening.