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Edwin Poots: Raising awareness about this sensitive matter will be crucial in saving lives

By Edwin Poots

We have made great improvements in organ donation in Northern Ireland, but I recognise that more needs to be done.

Whilst I appreciate that some people may be disappointed that I am not yet in a position to make a decision on the introduction of an opt-out scheme for organ donation, I believe that we can achieve immediate benefit from the central message in the Public Health Agency's campaign that all of us should tell our friends and relatives of our donation wishes should such a question ever arise.

Only 37% of those surveyed by the PHA in 2013 had done so and therefore many families, who would make the ultimate decision about donating their loved one's organs including under soft opt-out legislation, would not be aware of the views of their relative at a very difficult time.

I firmly believe that we need to go forward with the development of our policy on the basis of first educating and raising awareness among the public on this sensitive matter, and then evaluate the impact of the PHA's media campaign before making any decision on legislation.

After that I will then have had the benefit of having explored every possible option to securing the best possible service for Northern Ireland, rather than just implementing a soft opt-out system where there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that this alone can lead to an increase in donation rates. Some people say that education should go alongside legislation.

I believe that this would be a mistaken approach as it suggests that a decision has already been taken when so many people have not yet made up their minds about the merits of legislation.

The PHA's survey revealed that fewer than half of those surveyed agreed with the statement 'everyone should be presumed to be an organ donor unless they register a wish otherwise'. This obligation would be at the centre of soft opt-out legislation.

The last place we would want to be is, in seeking to do the right thing for the right reasons, actually doing the wrong thing, therefore making a decision on any legislative change for organ donation. It warrants taking sufficient time to assess the available evidence and reach a final decision on the long-term future of this service for the people of Northern Ireland.

I know that organ donation is very important to many people, none more so than myself. My uncle was one of the earliest recipients of a kidney transplant in Northern Ireland and is still alive today as a result.

I could have benefited further from organ donation for my mother, who died early of liver disease in spite of that fact that she never drank.

However, she did not have the opportunity to get that. This issue is very important to me personally, as I want to save lives through organ donation. I will also follow closely the views of the professionals, and would be cautious about legislative change without clear clinical support from those with the expertise of working day in, day out in this field.

I firmly believe that increased public awareness, education on the key issues and the further development of transplantation services through UK-wide action is the right way forward for organ donation in Northern Ireland at this time.

Again, I urge all those who have not already done so to join the Organ Donor Register. Our shared aim is to reduce the numbers of people on the waiting list for life-saving organs by increasing the numbers of families who consent to making healthy organs available for transplantation.

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