Organ donations are available to unvaccinated Canadians

Claims spread across social media that organ transplant recipients in Canada are required to be vaccinated. This is missing context; individual medical centers set policies, with most recommending potential organ recipients maximize their protection, including via Covid-19 jabs, but several groups have lifted pandemic-era mandates.

"It is now 2024 and unvaccinated Canadians still can not receive an organ transplant," says the text in a February 15, 2024 Instagram photo.

Screenshot of an Instagram post, taken February 27, 2024

The same photo spread on Facebook -- with some posts sharing an apparent screenshot from Stories, the ephemeral messages on the platform.

The text did not specify which vaccine the claim references, but comments indicated users inferred the posts were about Covid-19 shots, which researchers estimated have saved millions of lives (archived here and here).

Screenshot of a Facebook post, taken February 28, 2024

On X a user vowed that they would not become an organ donor if unvaccinated Canadians were ineligible for transplants, echoing claims that have circulated since at least 2023 and were previously fact-checked by The Canadian Press. 

Keyword searches for "unvaccinated Canadians" and "organ transplant" on social media yield results about an Edmonton woman who went to court claiming her rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had been violated when she was denied a spot on an organ transplant list because she refused to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Court documents show the judge dismissed her argument and said that her right to bodily autonomy did not entitle her to impact the integrity of the transplant program which prioritizes successful transplants (archived here). Local media reported the woman died in 2023.

However, this case did not set a nationwide policy requiring Covid-19 vaccination to receive an organ in Canada. 

The Canadian Society of Transplantation released guidance supporting requirements for Covid-19 vaccination based in part on the scarcity of organ availability, while also acknowledging individual medical providers can create their own requirements and recommending the policies be regularly reassessed (archived here and here).

This is exactly what medical centers have done, according to Deepali Kumar, an infectious disease physician and the director of the Ajmera Transplant Centre in Toronto (archived here).

In a February 27, 2024 interview, she said that the center's hospital network had previously required Covid-19 vaccination for transplant recipients but that policy has since been lifted.

Kumar said that when less was known about the coronavirus and fewer treatments were available, vaccination against the disease appeared to be a reasonable requirement for organ transplant recipients who are often immunocompromised.

"When this policy was made it was thought that we will reevaluate this policy as time goes on because we knew things were changing in the pandemic," she said. 

Kumar said the policy was not dissimilar to other mechanisms to ensure that a recipient is engaged in "healthy behavior" to increase the chances of a successful transplant.

"[Some] transplant centers have requirements, for example, that you need to stop drinking before you have a liver transplant, or you need to stop smoking before you have a lung transplant," she said.

She said that even with the removal of the vaccination requirement, she still highly recommends the Covid-19 shots and immunization against other diseases to those awaiting a transplant.

Transplants and vaccines across Canada

Additional transplant centers in Canada have updated their policies. Local media reported in 2021 that the London Health Sciences Centre in London, Ontario would require Covid-19 vaccination for transplant recipients but updated documents indicate this has been changed to a recommendation (archived here and here).

Unity Health Toronto told AFP in a February 27, 2024 email that it provides kidney transplants through St. Michael's Hospital, and that while it recommends Covid-19 vaccination, the shots are not required for recipients (archived here and here).

"Decisions as to proceed with transplant for those who are not vaccinated are done on a case-by-case basis," the health network said.

Documents from the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control say some vaccines are recommended for transplants while others -- such as the pneumococcal vaccine -- are required (archived here and here).

BC Transplant, which oversees transplants in the province does not require Covid-19 vaccination, saying on its website that organ transplant recipients are strongly encouraged to receive the shots and follow up with boosters (archived here and here). 

According to statistics from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, 2,936 people received a transplant in 2022, while 3,777 were on a waiting list (archived here and here). That same year, 701 people removed from waiting lists, 39 percent of whom had died.

Physicians have consistently told AFP that Covid-19 vaccines are safe and effective and Unity Health Toronto said research had shown that organ transplant patients had a positive immune response to vaccination (archived here). The shots' ability to mitigate serious disease and death is shown to outweigh the risk of possible side effects which can rarely develop post-vaccination (archived here).

Read more of AFP's reporting on misinformation in Canada here.

Is there content that you would like AFP to fact-check? Get in touch.

Contact us