Liver disease is a common and serious problem in our country. It is important for liver transplant patients and their families to understand the basic process involved with liver transplants, to appreciate some of the challenges faced by liver transplant recipients and to recognize symptoms that should alert them to seek immediate medical help.
Liver transplantation is surgery that is performed to remove a diseased liver in order to replace it with a healthy one. Such surgeries have been done for over 3 decades. Several people who have had liver transplants go on to lead perfectly normal lives.
Yes, liver transplant is legal in India but is bound by certain clauses which have been framed to prevent commerical use of organs. On July 8, 1994, the President of India assented to the Transplantation of Human Organs Act (Act No.42, 1994) providing for “the regulation of removal, storage and transplantation of human organs for therapeutic purposes and for the prevention of commercial dealings in human organs and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”. As a result, various state legislatures prohibited all organ sales.
The Act’s preamble envisages the object of the legislation in a two-fold manner:
The Act necessitates that the donor must not be below 18 years of age, must agree voluntarily to his organ removal, and that his consent is informed. It further prohibits removal of organs by anyone other than a registered medical practitioner, and the transplantation must take place in a registered hospital.
Further, to prevent commercialisation of sales of human organs, Sections 18 & 19 criminalises such transactions, including supply of organs for payment, and making/receiving any such payment. Payment, however, does not include reimbursement for the cost of removing, transporting or preserving the organ to be supplied or any expenses/loss of earnings incurred by the donor which can be attributed to his supplying any organ from his body.
Section 9(1) provides that no human organ shall be removed and transplanted unless the donor is a close relative as defined in section 2(i) of the Act. And though an altruistic donor is permitted to donate organs, it is only with prior authorisation of the committee constituted under the Act. Section 9(5)&(6) lay down the procedure to be followed while obtaining the committee’s approval.
Liver disease severe enough to require a liver transplant can come from many causes. In adults, the most common reason for liver transplantation is cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is a condition in which the liver slowly deteriorates and malfunctions due to chronic injury. Scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue, partially blocking the flow of blood through the liver. Cirrhosis can be caused by viruses such as Hepatitis B and C, alcohol, autoimmune liver diseases, buildup of fat in the liver, and hereditary liver diseases. Many people who develop cirrhosis of the liver due to excessive use of alcohol also need a liver transplant. Abstinence from alcohol and treatment of complications for 6 months will usually allow some of them to improve significantly and these patients may survive for prolonged periods without a transplant. For patients with advanced liver disease, where prolonged abstinence and medical treatment fails to restore health, liver transplantation is the treatment.
In children, the most common reason for liver transplantation is biliary atresia. Biliary atresia is a rare condition in newborn infants in which the common bile duct between the liver and the small intestine is blocked or absent. Bile ducts, which are tubes that carry bile out of the liver, are missing or damaged in this disease, and obstructed bile causes cirrhosis. Bile helps digest food. If unrecognised, the condition leads to liver failure. The cause of the condition is unknown. The only effective treatments are certain surgeries, or liver transplantation.
Other reasons for transplantation are liver cancer, benign liver tumors, and hereditary diseases. Primary liver cancers develop at a significantly higher rate in cirrhotic livers as compared to normal livers, particularly in patients having liver disease secondary to Hepatitis B. Liver Transplantation at an early stage of liver cancer may result in long-term survival for select patients. However, cancers of the liver that begin somewhere else in the body and spread to the liver are not curable with a Liver Transplant. Sometimes the cause of liver disease is not known. Liver Transplants can thus help both adults and children.
You cannot have a transplant if you have
Evaluations by specialists from a variety of fields are needed to determine if a Liver Transplant is appropriate. The evaluation includes a review of your medical history and a variety of tests. The transplant team will arrange blood tests, X – rays, and other tests to help make the decision about whether a patient needs a transplant and whether a transplant can be carried out safely. Other aspects of your health-like the heart, lungs, kidneys, immune system, and mental health-will also be checked to be sure the patient is strong enough for surgery.
Many healthcare facilities offer an interdisciplinary approach to evaluate and to select candidates for liver transplantation. This interdisciplinary healthcare team may include the following professionals:
There are two types of liver transplant options: Living Donor Transplant and deceased donor transplant.
Living Donor Liver Transplants are an option for some patients with end-stage liver disease. This involves removing a segment of liver from a healthy living donor and implanting it into a recipient. Both the donor and recipient liver segments will grow to normal size in a few weeks.
The donor, who may be a blood relative, spouse, or friend, will have extensive medical and psychological evaluations to ensure the lowest possible risk. Blood type and body size are critical factors in determining who is an appropriate donor. All living donors and donated livers are tested before transplant surgery. The testing makes sure the liver is healthy, matches your blood type, and is the right size so it has the best chance of working in your body.
Recipients for the living donor transplant must be active on the transplant waiting list. Their health must also be stable enough to undergo transplantation with excellent chances of success.
In Deceased Donor Liver Transplant, the donor may be a victim of an accident, brain hemorrhage or head injury. The donor’s heart is still beating, but the brain has stopped functioning. Such a person is considered legally dead, because his or her brain has permanently and irreversibly stopped working. At this point, the donor is usually in an intensive-care unit. The liver is donated, with the consent of the next of kin, from such individuals. Whole livers come from people who have just died. This type of donor is called a cadaveric donor. The identity of a deceased donor and circumstances surrounding the person’s death are kept confidential.
If the patients becomes an active liver transplant candidate, his/her name will be placed on a waiting list kept at the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Patients are listed according to blood type, body size, and medical condition (how ill they are). Each patient is given a priority score based on three simple blood tests (creatinine, bilirubin, and INR). The score is known as the MELD (Model of End Stage Liver Disease) score in adults and PELD (Pediatric End Stage Liver Disease) in children.
Patients with the highest scores are transplanted first. As they become more ill, their scores will increase and therefore their priority for transplant increases, allowing for the sickest patients to be transplanted first.
It is impossible to predict how long it will take for a liver to become available. The Transplant Coordinator will always be available to discuss where one is placed on the waiting list. While waiting for a new liver, it would be best if the patient and the doctor discuss what can be done to stay strong for the impending surgery. One can also begin learning about taking care of a new liver. For information regarding the national waiting list and patient rankings, please contact UNOS.
No. For liver transplants, the only requirements are that the donor and recipient need to be of approximately the same size, and of compatible blood types. No other matching is necessary.
Liver donation is very safe. This is because the liver has great reserve and regenerates to its original size quickly (within 2-3 months) after a part of it is removed. The donor suffers from no long-term effects, does not have to take any medication beyond 2-3 weeks, and is back to normalcy in a month. He/she can resume strenuous physical activity (weight lifting etc) in 3 months.
When a liver has been identified, the patient will be prepared for surgery. When you arrive at the hospital, additional blood tests, an ECG, and a Chest X-ray will generally be taken before the operation. The patient may also meet with the Anesthesiologist and the surgical team. If the new liver is from a living donor, both the patient and the donor will be in surgery at the same time. If the new liver is from a person who has recently died, then the surgery starts when the new liver arrives at the hospital.
Liver transplants usually take from 4 to 14 hours. During the operation, surgeons will remove the liver and will replace it with the donor liver. The surgeon will disconnect the diseased liver from the bile ducts and blood vessels before removing it. The blood that flows into the liver will be blocked or sent through a machine to return to the rest of the body. The surgeon will put the healthy liver in place and reconnect it to the bile ducts and blood vessels. Blood will then flow into the new liver. Because a transplant operation is a major procedure, surgeons will need to place several tubes in the patient’s body. These tubes are necessary to help the body carry out certain functions during the operation and for a few days afterward.
Initially in the intensive care unit there is very careful monitoring of all body functions, including the liver. Once the patient is transferred to the ward, the frequency of blood testing, etc. is decreased, eating is allowed and physiotherapy is prescribed to regain muscle strength. The drug or drugs to prevent rejection are initially given by vein, but later by mouth. During the transplantation, frequent tests are done to monitor liver function and detect any evidence of rejection.
Two of the most common complications following liver transplant are rejection and infection.
The average hospital stay after liver transplant is two weeks to three weeks. Some patients may be discharged in less time, while others may be in the hospital much longer, depending on how the new liver is working and on complications that may arise. The patient needs to be prepared for both possibilities. In the hospital, on will slowly start eating again. The patient will first start with clear liquids, then switch to solid food as the new liver starts to function.
The patient will learn how to take care of oneself and to use new medications to protect the new liver. As these functions are performed regularly, the patient will become an important participant in his/her own healthcare. Before discharge, the patient will also learn the signs of rejection and infection and will know when it is important to call your doctor. The patient's willingness to stick to the recommended post-transplantation plan is essential to a good outcome.
After the patient leaves the transplant center at the hospital, he/she will need to visit the doctor often to be sure the new liver is working well. Regular blood tests will also be required to check that the new liver is not being damaged by rejection, infections, or problems with blood vessels or bile ducts. The patient will need to be careful about avoiding sick people and must immediately report any signs of illnesses to the doctor. Home care involves building up endurance to carry out daily life activities and recovering to the level of health that the patient had before surgery. This can be a long, slow process that includes simple activities. Walking may require assistance at first. Coughing and deep breathing are very important to help the lungs stay healthy and to prevent pneumonia. Diet may at first consist of ice chips, then clear liquids, and, finally, solids. It is important to eat well-balanced meals with all food groups. After about 3-6 months, a person may return to work if he or she feels ready and it is approved by the primary doctor. Besides a healthy diet and exercise, the patient must abstain from alcohol, especially if alcohol was the primary cause of damage to the diseased liver. Before taking any medication, including ones that can be bought without a prescription, the patient will need to check with the doctor whether it is safe. It is most important to diligently follow all that the doctor says to take good care of the new liver.
Certainly. After a successful liver transplant, most people are able to go back to their normal daily activities. Getting your strength back will take some time, depending on how sick a patient was before the transplant. The doctor will be able to tell as to how long the recovery period is likely to be.
For further clarifications do consult the doctor before beginning any new activity.
Immunosuppressant drugs lower a person's resistance to infection and can make infections harder to treat. Although these medications are meant to prevent rejection of the liver, they also decrease the ability of the body to fight off certain viruses, bacteria, and fungi. The organisms that most commonly affect patients are covered with preventive medications. However, avoiding contact with people who have infections is very important.
Patients who are taking immunosuppressant drugs should see their doctor on a regular basis. Periodic check-up will allow the physician to make sure the drug is working as it should and to monitor the patient for unwanted side effects. These drugs are very powerful and can cause such serious side effects such as high blood pressure, rise in cholesterol levels, diabetes, weakening of bones, kidney problems and liver disorders. Various medicines are used, and each has its own effects. Cortisone-like drugs produce some fluid retention and puffiness of the face, risk of worsening diabetes and osteoporosis (a loss of mineral from bone). Cyclosporine produces some tendency to develop high blood pressure and the growth of body hair. The dose of this medication must be very carefully regulated. Kidney damage can occur from Cyclosporine but this can usually be avoided by monitoring the drug levels in the blood. Common side effects for FK-506 include headaches, tremor, diarrhea, increased tension, nausea, increased levels of potassium and glucose and kidney dysfunction. Steroid drugs may also cause changes in how you look by causing weight gain. Some side effects may not show up until years after the medicine was used.
The drugs can also increase the chance of uncontrolled bleeding. Some ways of preventing infection and injury include washing the hands frequently, avoiding sports in which injuries may occur, and being careful when using knives, razors, fingernail clippers, or other sharp objects.
Immunosuppressant drugs are also associated with a slightly increased risk of cancer because the immune system plays a role in protecting the body against some forms of cancer. Other side effects of immunosuppressant drugs are minor and usually go away as the body adjusts to the medicine. These include loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, increased hair growth, and trembling or shaking of the hands. Medical attention is not necessary unless these side effects continue or cause problems.
Usually, yes. However, as the body adjusts to the transplanted liver, the amount of medication required to control rejection can be gradually decreased. There are patients who have been successfully taken off these drugs. Researchers are attempting to determine the causes of success in these cases.
When the liver is transplanted from one person (the donor) into another (the recipient), the immune system of the recipient triggers the same response against the new organ that it would have against any foreign material, setting off a chain of events that can damage the transplanted organ. This process is called rejection. It can occur rapidly (acute rejection), or over a long period of time (chronic rejection). Rejection can occur despite close matching of the donated organ and the transplant patient.
The body’s natural defences, the immune system works to destroy foreign substances that invade the body. The immune system, however, cannot distinguish between your transplanted liver and unwanted invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. Therefore, the immune system may attempt to attack and destroy the new liver. This is called a rejection episode. About 70% of all liver-transplant patients have some degree of organ rejection prior to discharge. Anti-rejection medications are given to ward off the immune attack.
Here is a list of signs and symptoms that may indicate liver graft rejection:
None of these symptoms are specific for rejection; but they are important enough that when they occur, they should prompt a call to your doctor who will decide whether the situation warrants further investigation or should be observed for the time being.
It is very important to realize that rejection of transplanted liver is quite variable. Some patients will feel perfectly well, only to discover that their liver is being attacked by their immune system. In fact, it is more likely than not that there will be minimal or no symptoms of rejection.
Since rejection may have no symptoms at all, the standard strategy for post-transplant care is to regularly run blood tests that may be early indicators of liver graft rejection. Doctors will check the blood for liver enzymes, the first sign of rejection. In the beginning, these tests are run daily. For the first month or so after a liver transplant the tests are run at least weekly. Gradually the interval between measurement is increased as the months and years pass. When rejection is suspected it can be confirmed by a liver biopsy. In some instances, a biopsy is not needed because rejection is strongly suspected. In other situations, a biopsy is critical. For a biopsy, the doctor takes a small piece of the liver to view under a microscope.
Immunosuppressants weaken the immune system's ability to reject your new liver. These medications slow or suppress the immune system to prevent it from rejecting your new liver. Immunosuppressant drugs greatly decrease the risks of rejection, protecting the new organ and preserving its function. These drugs act by blocking the recipient’s immune system so that it is less likely to react against the transplanted organ. A wide variety of drugs are available to achieve this aim but work in different ways to reduce the risk of rejection. They may include Steroids, Cyclosporine, Tacrolimus, Sirolimus, and Mycophenolate Mofetil. You must take these drugs exactly as prescribed for the rest of one’s life.
Onset of the problem that made the transplant necessary in the first place is the most common trouble for patients with liver transplants. Also, Hepatitis C virus may damage a transplant if the patient was infected before the operation took place.
Other problems include
If the disease was caused by Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C viruses then recurrence is likely. Other types of liver disease do not recur.
Optimism is the need of the hour. Most liver transplant operations go well. About 80 to 90 percent of transplanted livers are still working after 1 year. Sometimes the liver takes a long time to work. There are varying degrees of failure of the liver, however, and even with imperfect function, the patient will remain quite well. If there are complications – say, the new liver fails to function or your body rejects it, your doctor and the transplant team will decide whether to replace the failing transplanted liver by a second (or even third) transplant operation. Unfortunately, there is no dialysis treatment for livers as is possible with kidneys. Researchers are experimenting with devices to keep patients with failing livers alive while waiting for a new liver.
Studies have shown that women who undergo liver transplantation can conceive and give birth normally, although they have to be monitored carefully because of a higher incidence of premature births.
Mothers are advised against nursing babies because of the possibility of immunosuppressive drugs being transmitted to the infants through breast milk.
Be sure to check the patient’s health insurance policy for the coverage of transplantation and prescription medicines. This is because the patient will require many prescription medicines after the surgery and for the rest of his/her life.
If one wishes to be an organ donor, ensure that the organ donor card is carried at all times and paste an organ donor sticker on the medical identification card. It is also important to discuss one’s views on organ donation with immediate family members since the process cannot be carried out without their consent.
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