Struggles with kidney failure, like Jonah Lomu's, are preventable

Robert Little
As published in the Sydney Morning Herald
November 24, 2015

Jonah Lomu was a remarkable individual. Unfortunately I, like many others, have kidney failure in common with him.

I was born in 1973 with kidney failure. When I was 12, I was the youngest person to start dialysis in Canberra. At 14 I received a kidney from my mother which at 22 failed. At 29, I received a kidney from my father which at 39 also failed. Now at 42, I am back on dialysis hopeful of a third transplant.

I wish I could say I was surprised to hear that Jonah had died. I was not. I understand that Lomu had been back on dialysis since 2011. Statistically four years is the average someone lives for while on dialysis.

Lomu was an inspiration, not because of any exploits on the field but for his resilience. The fact that he had the energy to train while on dialysis, is proof of his strength and the strength we can all tap into when going through adversity.

Lomu should not have had to wait as long as he did for a transplant. New Zealand and Australia have abysmally low rates of organ donation. Not to say that a transplant would have absolutely prevented his death, but I am sure that any time off dialysis is good for one's body, mental health and allows one to do things that being tied to a machine preclude.

In May this year the Assistant Minister for Health, Senator Fiona Nash, asked independent consultants to look into the implementation of the organ-donation National Reform Program. This was a program prime minister Kevin Rudd put in place in 2008, vowing to transform Australia's in-hospital processes for managing organ donation so that Australia could become "a world leader in organ donation for transplantation".

Being a world leader would mean matching Spain at about 35 donors per million of population. Australia now languishes at just less than half that rate. We've dropped from 20th to 22nd in the last two years.

Clearly this is a long way from being a world leader as promised by the government. We're still behind countries such as Spain, Croatia, Malta, Belgium, Portugal, France, the US, Estonia, Austria and Slovenia to name just a few. What makes this tragic is there are people in the transplant "system" who are, seemingly, happy to accept Australia's low ranking.

This leaves an added bitter taste when $250 million, a quarter of a billion dollars, has been spent on the program! If this was sport it would be unacceptable.

This is a time of mourning for rugby fans but, as cliched as it sounds, Lomu's death offers an opportunity to bring attention to this important issue. I am hopeful that Minister Nash will soon announce changes to the organ donation and transplantation system that will start to reverse Australia's low rate of organ donation.

Vale, Jonah.

Robert Little is an inquiry secretary with the House of Representatives who has kidney failure.

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