06 October 2010

Slims’ Transplant Inspires Push for Organ Donations


In 2008, Carlos Slim Domit watched his younger brother suffer progressive health troubles. Not yet 40, Patrick, chairman of Latin America’s largest wireless company, was often fatigued, his hands and feet swollen.

After doctors told Patrick his kidneys were beginning to fail, Carlos had himself tested to see if one of his could be used to save his brother. So did his father, the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. The younger Carlos turned out to be the best fit, and surgeons transplanted his kidney to Patrick.

“I wouldn’t have imagined how immediate the change would be,” Carlos said in an interview. “He had better color. He had another expression.”

The Slim family, led by the world’s richest man, has taken the experience as a call to action in their native Mexico. While the country’s rate of organ donation is one of the lowest in Latin America, the family is using its wealth and public profile to encourage people to embrace the practice.

On Oct. 1, the brothers Carlos and Patrick will unveil a campaign with the country’s Health Ministry to promote organ donation. Through print and television advertising, the effort will explain the need for donations and encourage Mexicans to talk with loved ones about contributing their bodies after death.

The younger Carlos said Mexicans may grow more comfortable with the idea of organ donations by hearing the brothers’ story.

“Learning and hearing about the experience from people who have been through the process can always help,” said Carlos, 43, the eldest of the six children of Carlos Slim and chairman of Telefonos de Mexico SAB.

Mother’s Legacy

The elder Slim, whose public holdings are worth about $60.3 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, said last month he disagrees with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett that billionaires should donate half their wealth to charity. Slim has said he prefers to fight poverty by investing in projects that create jobs. Slim’s charities have a budget of 18.8 billion pesos ($1.49 billion) this year, according to an advertisement his companies placed in Mexico City newspapers in June.

The issue of organ transplants has the family’s financial and personal support. Their recent effort builds on the legacy of Soumaya Domit, the elder Slim’s wife, who also received a kidney transplant and died of kidney failure in 1999. Slim, 70, has never remarried. The family’s National Transplant Foundation has funded 6,500 transplants over the past decade.

More than two-thirds of the family’s wealth comes from stakes in America Movil, Latin America’s largest mobile-phone carrier, and Telefonos de Mexico, the nation’s biggest land-line phone company.

Long-Term Funding

Through his Carlos Slim Health Institute, the billionaire and his family spend about $20 million a year on research and administrative costs around organ transplants, or about 10 percent of its annual budget, said Roberto Tapia, chief executive officer of the organization.

The idea, Tapia said, is to move from simply funding transplants for Mexicans to improving the medical technology available to make operations safer and more successful. The group’s projects include funding genomic research at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University to understand genetic factors in medical conditions including kidney failure.

“They prefer to see it as a social investment, instead of calling it philanthropic,” Tapia said of the Slim family.

The Slim Institute, founded in 2007, also is funding research at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to increase the duration and health of a donated kidney awaiting a recipient, Tapia said.

Health Ministry

Mexico’s government has welcomed the Slims’ help as it seeks ways to fund more donations through its own health-care system and to train more medical experts to guide families through organ donations from patients who are near death, said Enrique Martinez, director of the National Transplant Registry at Mexico’s Health Ministry.

“Around the world these organizations are important, but in a country like Mexico they take up an even more important role,” Martinez said in a phone interview. “We always have problems in institutions with a lack of resources, and these organizations offer an opportunity to patients that, truthfully, would be very difficult for them to find through other means.”

Mexico’s kidney transplant rate from live donors last year was 16.6 per million people, about the same as the U.S. and ahead of Spain, Colombia and Uruguay, according to Martinez and to statistics from the International Registry of Organ Donation and Transplantation, compiled by Spanish and Italian researchers.

Drop-off After Death

The drop-off for Mexico came from deceased donors, with a rate of 4.6 kidney transplants per million. That compares to 18 in Colombia, 33 in Uruguay, 29 in the U.S. and 45 in Spain, the leader in organ donations after a years-long government effort. A lack of trained medical personnel and legal frameworks are some of the biggest obstacles to surmount, Slim Domit said.

“A big part of what’s going on is that there is very little information,” Carlos Slim Domit said. “The other part is all the infrastructure that is being created so that there are people specialized in organ donations in the different health centers, public and private, that know all the legal processes that are required so people can donate.”

Transplant Improvements

Doctors have been successfully performing kidney transplants since the 1950s, with success rates improving over the decades with advances in tissue-matching tests and drugs to suppress rejection of organs by the recipient’s immune system.

In the U.S., where the Slim Domit brothers had their operation to gain access to the latest immune system suppression therapies, kidney recipients between 35 and 49 years old had a survival rate of 93 percent after the first year and of 89 percent after five years, according to government statistics.

Two years after their transplant, the Slim Domit brothers are talking about the operation publicly to help Mexicans learn more. Carlos and Patrick, 41, recorded Web video testimonials to encourage more families to consider donations. While the Slim family cherishes its privacy, the decision to talk openly about the transplant was easy, Carlos Slim Domit said.

“Our aim is that the experience that Patrick and I had can help other people to sensitize themselves more to the subject of organ donations,” he said.

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