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Underestimating the risk in living kidney donation

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Living donor kidney transplantation (LDKT) has increased significantly in the past 10 years. Currently it accounts for 41% of all kidney transplants in the USA.1 While the percentage is lower in the United Kingdom and other European countries, the number of living compared with cadaveric kidney donors will probably continue to increase globally. Mortality associated with surgery on live donors is low, thanks largely to the success of laparoscopic nephrectomy. Kidney transplantation from a living donor is preferable to that from a cadaveric, or deceased, donor because of its superior graft and patient survival outcomes. It also preempts the need for or reduces the duration of dialysis for individuals with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) and therefore greatly improves their quality of life.

Some who donate kidneys to anonymous recipients are motivated by altruism, with no direct benefit and only an indirect psychological benefit as a consequence of donating. Those who donate may be motivated by prudential reasons involving shared interests, or by a sense of obligation grounded in emotional relations. This includes donations between spouses, siblings, parents and children and may also include donations between intimate friends. Others may be motivated to donate by the prospect of financial gain. In a recent article on kidney markets, The Economist claimed that those who donate one of their healthy kidneys do so at “very little risk to their health”.2 Presumably, this provides support for these markets. In 2004, Zell Kravinsky, an American in his early 40s, gave away one of his healthy kidneys to a stranger as part of a utilitarian obligation to help other people and maximise the good by saving or improving the quality of their lives.3 He estimated that this entailed a statistically insignificant risk to his health. In a lecture to an ethics class at …

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  • Competing interests: None.