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Facebook promotes organ donations

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Facebook has launched a program to promote organ donation, which grew from a conversation between the social media company's chief operating officer and a Johns Hopkins surgeon already passionate about the cause.

COO Sheryl Sandberg and Dr. Andrew M. Cameron took the chat they had about the shortage of organs at their 20th college reunion at Harvard University and turned it into reality. Facebook announced Tuesday a new organ transplant initiative that could reach hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Facebook users can now post their organ donor status just as they share whether they are in a relationship, where they went to college and what books they like to read.

Cameron, a Hopkins transplant surgeon, said he hopes the exposure, and more personal conversations, will raise the profile of organ shortages and inspire more people to register as donors. Facebook users will be able to link to organ donation sites in their states.

"It was this 'Eureka' chills-up-the-spine moment when I knew this would work," Cameron said, recalling last year's conversation. "I knew it was the perfect way to attack a very difficult problem."

Facebook did not return calls Tuesday.

Sandberg told Diane Sawyer from ABC News that five years before speaking with Cameron she read a profile in an alumni publication where he talked about patients he sees die as they wait for transplants. He wrote of how difficult it was to tell families there were no organs available, Sandberg said.

"This was hugely meaningful for me," she said.

Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said in an ABC interview Tuesday that he was also driven to embrace the idea by dinner conversations with his medical school girlfriend and the battle Apple CEO Steve Jobs had with a rare form of pancreatic cancer before dying from the disease.

Cameron helped the Facebook team develop the tool, making many visits to the company's Washington office.

Facebook users were already posting their organ transplant status shortly after the announcement.

Donate Maryland Life, which oversees the state's online registry of organ and tissue donors, had registered 130 new donors Tuesday afternoon. Its biggest registration day in April, which was National Donate Life Month, was 55 people.

"Facebook has such national sweep that our numbers could really change if people are engaged in the conversation about tissue and organ donation," said Natalie Benavides, executive director of Donate Life Maryland.

More than 114,000 people, including 2,000 in Maryland, are waiting for life-saving organs. While the number of people needing new kidneys, heart, livers and other organs has increased over the years, the number of organ donors has not.

Surveys have found that more than 90 percent of Americans say they support organ transplants but just 30 percent to 50 percent of people with drivers' licenses, depending on the state, have registered to donate, Cameron said. In Maryland, 50 percent of people with drivers' licenses are registered donors, according to Donate Life Maryland.

Cameron said he also hopes Facebook interaction will help dispel myths about organ donation. Some people fear doctors will give them inferior care so that they can access their organs to save someone else's life.

Facebook has the potential to influence widespread change in the organ transplant industry, said Jonathan Bromberg, head of the Division of Transplantation at the University of Maryland Medical Center, where 400 transplants are expected this year.

He said adding more donors could increase the number of organ transplants. He said it could also allow for more quality transplants because the organs could reach patients earlier in diagnosis.

Bromberg said previous outreach efforts have never reached large amounts of people effectively.

"This could be one of those big cultural changes we've been waiting for," he said. "It will do much better than any of our 20th century marketing campaigns."

Baltimore Sun reporter Gus Sentementes contributed to this article.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ankwalker

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