By Michelle Healy and Brett Molina
The organ donation community is applauding Facebook's announcement Tuesday that it will allow its 900 million members to share their donor status with friends and family, and to link to state databases where people in the USA can register online to officially become donors.
"This is great news. It has the potential to be one of the biggest campaigns to increase donor designation that we've ever seen," said John Green, community relations director for the Gift of Life Donor Program, based in Philadelphia.
"It's absolutely critical at this time when online communication and social media are really the way people are communicating," said Julia Rivera, director of communications for the New York Organ Donor Network.
In an interview on Good Morning America Tuesday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the organ donation initiative was inspired by disasters such as last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the social network's role in keeping people connected.
Zuckerberg also cited his girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, who is studying to become a pediatrician. "Our dinner conversations are often about Facebook and kids, and the kids that she's meeting," he said. "She'll see them getting sicker, then, all of a sudden, an organ becomes available, and she comes home and her face is all lit up because someone's life is going to be better because of this."
Facebook is partnering with Donate Life America, a national umbrella organization for local groups working to increase the number of registered organ, eye and tissue donors.
Nearly 114,000 men, women and children are currently waiting for a lifesaving transplant, said the organization's Aisha Huertas Michel. Thousands more are in need of tissue or corneal transplants to resume normal lives or restore sight, she said.
"We're hoping people will be excited about the initiative and it will prompt them to take the next step and register to be a donor," Michel said.
Only about 43(PERCENT), of U.S. adults have signed up to be an organ donor through a state registry -- often accessed through their state Department of Motor Vehicles and listed on their drivers license.
Facebook's initiative will "help bring out the conversation about organ donation," said Jeffrey Punch, chief of transplantation surgery at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
"The vast majority of people understand that it's a good thing and want to donate," he said, but for various reasons have never officially registered.
When that happens, "it puts families in a tough situation when a tragic loss occurs and they're faced with having to make a decision while grieving."
"There's no downside to spreading this awareness and encouraging people to make a commitment" to be an organ donor, he adds, "so their family won't be placed in this situation."