NHS bosses admit ALL organ transplants could be scrapped ‘within days’ over fears patients will catch coronavirus as outbreak overwhelms intensive care units
- NHS Blood and Transplant admitted all transplants could be scrapped next week
- Almost 4,500 transplants carried out at 28 transplant centres in UK last year
- It means patients needing hearts, lungs and livers will miss out on lifesaving ops
Health chiefs are considering scrapping thousands of life-saving organ transplants in days because of a lack of ICU beds and fears patients might catch coronavirus.
NHS Blood and Transplant has already written to hospitals asking that they cut the number of potential donors by almost 50 per cent.
But as the COVID-19 continues to overwhelm intensive care units up and down the country, NHS bosses said cancelling all transplants ‘may only be days away.’
Almost 4,500 of the procedures were carried out in the UK last year. The most common organ transplanted was a kidney, followed by liver, heart and lungs.
Health chiefs are considering scrapping thousands of life-saving organ transplants in days because of a lack of ICU beds and fears patients might catch coronavirus. Pictured: Medics treat a COVID-19 patient in Bergamo, Italy
England has 23 transplant centres, with an additional five in the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Most kidney patients can survive without a transplant and survive on dialysis, but patients in ‘end stage’ liver failure will die without an urgent transplant.
The outlook for heart and lung patients needing a transplant is as a little brighter as they can often, but not always, be kept alive by a variety of support devices.
Some transplant units have already made their own decision and stopped operations ahead of what might be a national co-ordinated decision by bosses at NHS Blood and Transplant.
Transplant doctors say it is becoming increasingly difficult to carry on as normal during the coronavirus crisis.
Reasons given so far include a lack of intensive care beds staff shortages and a fear that newly transplanted patients might become infected with the virus in hospital.
The UK’s coronavirus outbreak is expected to get worse before it gets better, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said (Pictured: Paramedics working in London)
UK announces 684 more coronavirus victims today, taking death toll to 3,605
The UK has announced 684 more coronavirus deaths today, taking the total number of fatalities to 3,605.
Yet again the number is a record one-day high – this has been the case almost every day this week, with each day since Tuesday announcing more victims than the last.
Yesterday there were a record 569 new fatalities announced by the Department of Health and today’s statistics show a rise 20 per cent larger.
The new numbers mean the number of people dead from COVID-19 in the UK has risen five-fold in a week, from just 759 last Friday, March 27.
The numbers behind the UK’s crisis have escalated rapidly over the past seven days and Health Secretary Matt Hancock today admitted that next week is likely to be worse still, potentially topping out at more than 1,000 deaths per day by Easter Sunday.
Britain is still being hammered by the consequences of huge numbers of people catching the coronavirus before the country went into total lockdown last week. The increases being seen each day are ‘expected’, scientists say.
Experts say it could take another couple of weeks before the benefits of social distancing start to show in NHS statistics – but they insist that the outbreak will taper off and the daily numbers will start to fall.
And insiders maintain that the NHS, by and large, is coping well with the strain so far and there are still intensive care beds and ventilators available for patients who need them.
Transplant patients have compromised immune systems, putting them at risk of serious complications and death from the virus.
In many transplant centres, patients who have received a new organ share the same intensive care unit as other sick patients.
At present many transplant centres are only offering new organs in life and death situations.
Non urgent transplants – such as kidney transplants – are, in many cases, already being cancelled.
A spokesman NHS Blood and Transplant said: ‘Lung transplant centres are only taking urgent and super urgent patients at this time. Two units have suspended their transplant programmes as they don’t have any patients in these categories on the waiting list.
The NHS Blood and Transplant spokesman added: ‘A complete cessation of activity is not, now, universally supported by the clinical community, but we also acknowledge that this time may only be days away.’
‘Transplant teams will also talk to patients awaiting a transplant operation and balance their need for a transplant against the additional challenges of being immuno-suppressed at this time and the challenges being faced within the NHS at this moment.’
The decision to stop an organ donation and transplantation programme is down to local health chiefs and hospitals.
But the national crisis may well lead to a co-ordinated shut down of transplant surgery.
A heart transplant surgeon – who asked not to be named – was in tears at the prospect.
He said: ‘We have this wonderful operation that has saved thousands of lives in this country. Now we are faced with condemning patients to death.
‘We already lose several hundred patients a year because of a shortage or organs.Now we face lose patients we could have saved.’
A spokeswoman for the charity Kidney Care UK said: ‘Deceased donations have more or less completely stopped to protect the resources of the health service and to protect people themselves.
‘It’ll be hard for people on the waiting list. We have heard from people who are obviously very upset and saddened but they understand why the decision has been taken’.
Oxford University Hospitals Trust, a major transplant centre, added ‘We have taken the difficult decision to temporarily suspend transplant programmes, with the exception of the kidney programme for patients that do not require ICU beds.’
The trust said the move was in part to protect the ‘safety’ of their patients waiting for transplants.
Public Health England has said organ recipients are in the ‘shielding’ group of people who are at high-risk from covid-19.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?
What is the coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.
The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Where does the virus come from?
According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.
However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.
Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.
‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.
However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.
Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.
Can the virus be cured?
The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.
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