The Moral Dilemma of Vaccines and Organ Transplants


Image Source: Johns Hopkins Medicine

Analise Bruno, Editor-in-Chief

Almost two full years into the coronavirus pandemic and the disease is still circulating at large. Although conditions have improved thanks to mask mandates and vaccine availability, there is still a long way to go to completely eradicate this virus. The CDC has recommended that everyone wear masks when they go out into an enclosed public space, and suggests that anyone who can get vaccinated (assuming they are of age and not medically compromised in doing so). This recommendation has been made with the interest of safety in mind to slow the spread and decrease the number of people filling up needed hospital beds. However, much like with the original imposition of mask-wearing, vaccine outreach has also caused a widening divide in American politics and social life. Whether or not you agree with getting the vaccine, there is no overlooking science: the reason we are seeing case numbers rise and the creation of new variants is largely sourced from unvaccinated citizens. Lack of complete resistance has enabled the virus to evolve into new infections such as omicron.  

The debate has become even more controversial after a man in Boston was denied a new heart by UNOS for refusing to be vaccinated. Some people agree with the decision, others find it unfair- so let’s dive into the real truth behind what goes on with organ donation.

Vital and usable organs are hard to come by in the U.S. even though a significant amount of people remain on waiting lists every year in hopes of finding their needed match. Since receiving a new heart, liver, kidney, lung, etc. is a matter of life or death for thousands of people, the select donation commission board, aka the United Network for Organ Sharing, must be very strict in its decision-making process. It does bring a lot of morals and ethics into question, but they still adhere to their limited policy. 

Generally, smokers, drug users, heavy drinkers with a history of alcoholism, and anyone with extreme complications/health risks, etc. are typically not considered or are put at the very end of the waiting list for an organ. This is simply because when deciding who gets a transplant, UNOS must rule on the side of fairness and practicality. It would not be fair to give someone who has alcoholism a new liver over someone who is in liver failure due to means they can not control. Likewise, it would not be practical to waste an organ on someone less likely to survive, when it could go to someone who could survive and use the organ for the rest of their life. The decision process sounds brutal, and it is, because no one, whether suffering from an addiction or not, should not have to die.

In the past few days, some people on the internet have been outraged by UNOS’s decision to remove a patient from the heart transplant list because they refuse to be vaccinated. The New York Post reports that the 31-year-old father will instead receive a mechanical heart pump to help him. Though that will buy him time, due to the fragility of the pump, the man will be unable to submerge himself in water and will be limited in how active he can be. The man’s father reported that he has received all his required vaccinations (i.e Hepatitis, tetanus, MMR, etc), however, he does not believe in the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Opinions aside, the facts are this: the CDC and UNOS require all patients to not only exhibit lifestyle behaviors that prove they will be able to use the organ to its best ability but also be vaccinated so that their immune system can handle this incredibly complex operation. The reality is that by choosing not to be vaccinated, this man’s immunity is severely compromised, which drastically decreases his chances of survival. As mentioned above, UNOS must rule practically, and as tragic as it may be, it would not be fair to give away a heart to a person who is at risk for falling ill and dying when a fully vaccinated patient who requires the same organ would have better chances of survival. 

This is not to say that this man does not deserve sympathy, because it is unfortunately a very upsetting situation, but at the end of the day, medical professionals will side with science. There have always been varying levels of priority that come in deciding who has what spot on the organ transplant list, so it is unlikely the man was first in line, but his decision to not get vaccinated will hinder him from being active on the list. 

Vaccines have always been necessary to combat deadly viruses. It is how we have overcome the polio epidemic, influenza surges, the flu, etc. The purpose of the COVID vaccine is not to stop us from catching the virus because the shot isn’t a shield. However, it is meant to lessen the severity of our reaction to the illness, cut the risk of mortality in half, and keep needed hospital beds open for people who need them. Even if there is enough modern medicine to keep someone alive with COVID, the reality is an influx of patients suffering from the same thing is going to overwhelm any hospital and put a strain on all their resources so that no one else can be helped. We create more panic and devastating loss by not taking the correct precautions. 

However you may feel about the vaccine, at the end of the day, UNOS is going to air statistics and survival rates to make their determination rather than how badly we think someone “deserves” an organ. Many people have begun to link this situation to politics, and infringements on human rights, however, I leave you with this: When considering a person for an organ transplant, the board making the decisions are not going to bring politics into it like many people are doing right now, they are going to do one thing: look at the probability for survival. The person who is less at risk is the one who will receive the organ. That is the basis of this dilemma at its core. 

***This opinion article reflects the voice of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of The Viking Times as a whole. Like most news outlets, The Viking Times is a non-partisan media platform.***