12 December 2009
Today, the 120 year old Bir hospital in Kathmandu celebrates the anniversary of its first successful kidney transplant.
Bir’s renal transplant department was the brainchild of surgeon Dr. Pukar Shrestha who spent six years training in UK. In his last role he was a senior registrar at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle before choosing to return to Nepal over promotion to consultant.
“I was thinking, ‘Nepal needs me’,” he recalls. “In the UK there are many like me, but here in Nepal every patient needs doctors like me.”
In the past 12 months 16 patients have been given kidneys donated from family members. “16 is good success over 11 months, however we used to operate on up to 15 patients every week in Newcastle.”
The department’s target is one transplantation per week. But there are major obstacles to achieving this. For instance, the department has no operating theatre. “We have to borrow the theatre from cardiology or neurology and this is a big limitation,” says Shrestha. Additionally there is no facility for tissue cross matching in Nepal and samples need to be sent to India which is both costly and takes 4-6 days. “On the positive side,” adds Dr Shrestha, “we have a really capable and dedicated team here. We’re also lucky to have strong ties with organisations outside Nepal such as Freeman Hospital, Transplant links and Health Exchange Nepal who are helping us with training.”
Previously the only option for those with Chronic Renal Failure (CRF) was to go to India. While there is no official data, it is thought that up to 100 people cross the border every year paying upwards of 8,000 Euro, sometimes purchasing an organ there.
Now Nepali’s have the option of both Bir Hospital and Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital (TUTH) which had its first transplant success in mid-2008. While the average cost of a transplant in the USA for example is at least US$ 50,000, both hospitals charge less than 3,500 Euro for a transplant using the best available drugs. “I was trained in the UK and want to work in the same way,” says Dr. Shrestha.
Dr Rajani Hada, Associate Professor of Nephrology at Bir is enthusiastic about transplantation. “Over 50% of patients are below 30. With a transplant they can go on to lead normal, productive lives.”
It is estimated that annually 2800 people suffer from CRF in Nepal. Dr Hada believes that while transplants save lives, the most effective way is early screening and thus prevention. “In my ideal world I would screen all children at school. It costs just 25 NRP (23 Euro cents) for a urine test, and we could catch problems early and treat them. We could eventually reduce that number significantly.”
Present at the short ceremony at the hospital is Dinesh Thapa, 22, who was transplanted seven months ago with a kidney donated by his mother. “We have a new life. For us, the transplant is a miracle,” says Dinesh.
The immunosuppressant drugs he takes daily to stop the body rejecting the kidney cost around 150 euro per month, an amount that is equivalent to a good government salary. “We sell our land,” says his mother when asked how they finance this cost. He is studying journalism and in two years hopes to be able to have job and be able to cover this cost himself.
While operations themselves have been very successful, the cost of medication is a major stumbling block. Some organisations such as UNDP are looking into income generation programs to help transplanted patients and their families afford the drugs. Dr Hada called for the government to remove taxes from immunosuppressants and even offer a subsidy to patients.
“We need to do something for these people,” says Shrestha later, “Dinesh is not working, how long can he sustain these costs?”
“We can’t make an emotional bond with patients or we’d end up in a mental hospital,” says Dr Hada. “Making good decisions for all our patients is the best we can do.”