Portugal currently ranks 12th in Europe with regard to the number of such surgeries performed per year, ahead of countries such as Germany and the UK, and boasts a success rate of 90 percent.
There are currently 40 people in Portugal waiting for a heart transplant, among them Eurovision Song contest winner and musician, Salvador Sobral, who is at the top of the waiting list.
The first heart transplant carried out in Portugal took place in 1936 by a team under the guidance of renowned doctor, Queiroz e Melo.
Last year, 42 Portuguese received a new heart, and this year, up until the end of August, 29 transplants had been carried out, although the number of donated organs falls short of the number of patients waiting for one.
An in-depth report by Diário de Notícias reveals that last year 36 people died while waiting for a heart transplant, and at this moment, there are 40 people on the waiting list.
In 2015, Portugal ranked 13th in terms of the number of heart transplants carried out, at 4.9 transplants per every one million inhabitants, and last year the country had risen to 12th spot, with 4.1 transplants carried out per every one million inhabitants, putting Portugal ahead of countries such as the UK and Germany. At the top of the table is Slovenia.
Specialist surgeon Manuel Antunes, head of the service at the Coimbra University Hospital Centre (CHUC), who has carried out 330 heart transplants over the past 13 years, said there are currently 15 people on their waiting list.
“We have never had so many patients on the waiting list. We need, however, some time to see whether there are more patients being sent for transplants or if there are fewer donors, but in part there is a lack of donors”, Dr. Antunes explained.
A decade ago the majority of heart donors were the victims of road accidents, but improvements in road safety and a reduction in deaths goes some way towards explaining the lack of donors.
“Thankfully, reducing road traffic fatalities has been a success. Now, most donors are stoke victims and are much older. We are starting to see a lack of hearts for transplants”, the surgeon said.
While a few years ago many donors were in their 30s, today the average donor age is closer to 50.
According to the specialist, the heart is a scarce organ because, unlike the kidney and liver - the two most commonly transplanted organs – “the heart ages much more with age”.
Manuel Carrageta, president of the Portuguese Cardiology Foundation, says that “there is a lack of hearts around the world”.
“There is more demand than supply; we are an aging country, and the decline in fatalities can also have an impact”, he added, elaborating: “There is an increasing number of patients being flagged for transplants; medicine has progressed a lot”.
Figures from the Portuguese Institute for Blood and Transplants (IPST) show that in recent years, an average of between 40 and 50 heart transplants have been carried out per year in Portugal, with the exception of 2012 (30) and 2013 (55).
Manuel Antunes says Portugal should be carrying out between 70 and 80 transplants per year, but falls short of that benchmark for a number of reasons, including the patient failing to seek specialist treatment.
In the surgeon’s opinion, to bring the waiting list down, more effort needs to be put into preventing organs from being wasted, especially in smaller hospital units where harvesting organs may not be standard procedure.
“There are many potential donors who are not identified as such, especially in smaller hospitals, where this activity is not part of the routine”, Manuel Antunes laments, noting that “transforming a corpse into a donor entails a lot of work”.
In March this year, the first artificial heart transplant was carried out in Portugal, although Manuel Carrageta stresses the device is more of a “cardiac ventricular assisting device” and not quite “an artificial heart.”
He said the nature of the device is to “help during the wait for a transplant, but is not a solution.”
Manuel Antunes added that the device is “extremely costly and the results are not 100 percent positive.”