Jooste Vermeulen from Organ Donor Foundation and TUT Skin Bank centre manager, Cleo Ndhlovu talk about the treatment of burn victims and the need for skin donations.
THE Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) Centre for Tissue Engineering only has two days supply of skin tissue packs remaining for burn victims who need it.

This was heard yesterday when the representatives of the centre addressed members of the National Press Club in Pretoria, where they spoke about the treatment of burn victims, the need for skin donations and challenges.

They were joined by representatives of the Organ Donor Foundation (ODF), who gave clarity and insight on how that linked with the skin bank, and what needed to be done to encourage people to donate.

So big has the need for skin among patients become that, they said, in 2016, when the skin bank was launched, it supplied 65 skin graft packs to hospitals and other centres.

Last year that number increased to 108 and this year, up to June, they had supplied 60 packs.

However, these are only from orders received and did not represent the national demand for skin grafts.

The TUT Centre for Tissue Engineering is a multi-tissue bank which makes the organ available for transplantation of bone tissue, skin, cornea, ligaments and heart valves.

“We are the only centre that provides skin and bone tissue in the country, so you can imagine the enormous pressure we are receiving from the healthcare industry; we have realised we need all the support we can get from different stakeholders, which is one of the reasons behind us partnering with the Organ Donor Foundation,” said centre manager Cleo Ndhlovu.

Because of the number of fires, especially in informal settlements, there is a huge shortage of skin to treat burn victims.

She said unlike organs, skin was never rejected by the recipient; she described it as a bandage created by God.

“Unlike other organs, there is no medical exclusion for any person to donate skin or tissue,” she said.

Skin is donated for harvest when a person dies.

Ndhlovu said the centre figured out that people simply did not donate because they did not have the correct information. “Whenever we ask people why they do not donate, they say ‘but I never knew about this. If I ever had known, I would have done something’.

“Skin donation not only saves lives, it can dramatically shorten a patient's stay in hospital.”

Ndhlovu said some of the myths the centre had come across included that families thought it interfered with funeral arrangements, but the centre went wherever the body was to conduct a retrieval process following the consent process by the family.

To make society understand the retrieval process, she said experts removed the required tissue and blood samples to take back to the lab to test for any communicable diseases, to make sure it was safe for transplantation.

Then the tissue went for a process of re-engineering.

“What I always tell people is that they must not make the mistake of thinking fires only happen in winter because they happen any time of the year. We get orders for skin tissue in March or November; right now the demand is much higher because it is cold.

“Unfortunately, there is not enough skin around because the time frame between death and the time of retrieval is 24 hours.”

She said on average 600cm² of skin graft was enough to treat an adult burn victim.

Child burn victims will usually be given priority over adults.

Jooste Vermeulen from the ODF said from surveys they had conducted, 100% of people were aware of the opportunity to become organ donors; 80% were prepared to accept an organ donation; however, 80% also indicated they would not become donors.

“We found out that the reason why people do not want to donate is because they were actually afraid of the unknown they give us the reasons they don't want to be skinned, or their eyes plucked out.”

Vermeulen added that organ and tissue donation was not a difficult topic to discuss, it was only difficult to convince people to make the decision. The foundation will move around the country to clinics and schools as part of its Uluntu (project) campaign to bring awareness about the importance of skin donation.