Dozens of tiny lives could be saved if medical guidance about the death of new born babies was changed to allow the donation of organs, a new study has found.


The research paper, published in the BMJ journal Archives of Disease in Childhood: Fetal and Neonatal Edition, shows the potential for organ donation among very young babies is currently ‘untapped’ in the UK because of national guidelines about the way clinicians define and diagnose death.

These guidelines, from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, currently restrict British doctors from diagnosing brain stem death in infants less than two months of age.

In the rest of Europe, the United States and Australia, doctors are able to diagnose death using brain criteria in younger babies and neonatal organ donation takes place.

The study, carried out by a team from Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (GOSH) and included third year medical student Elinor Charles from St George’s, University of London, took place in the London hospital’s neonatal and paediatric intensive care units between 2006 and 2012.

It showed that of the 84 infants aged between 37 weeks and two months who died during that period, 45 (54%) could have donated organs with their parents’ consent.

Dr Joe Brierley, of GOSH, said: “This research provides us with a glimpse of what might be possible in the UK if our guidelines around diagnosis of death in very young babies were brought into line with other countries.

“At Great Ormond Street we witness first-hand the urgent need for organs for children of all ages but small babies particularly have the odds stacked against them because they need to be matched with the tiny organs of similarly aged children.

“Organ donation is a very emotive topic, particularly when it involves children, but I believe it is an option that should be available to a young child’s family if they decide it is the right choice for them.

“The loss of a child will always be an extremely tragic and heart-breaking experience, but a lot of parents who decide to donate their child’s organs later find some comfort in the knowledge that at this most tragic time for their own family, they were able to do something extraordinarily kind to help another child or perhaps several children.”

The present differing UK guidelines mean that very young British babies in need of a lifesaving heart transplant, where only a tiny new born heart will be suitable, must hope that a heart becomes available elsewhere in Europe which could be flown in.

It also means that while the UK accepts new born hearts from Europe, there can be no reciprocal arrangement.

If guidelines permitted, infants could also donate other organs including liver, lung, kidneys and bowel.