Britain's transplant authority said Saturday that it was investigating several hundred thousand errors in its organ donor list stretching back about a decade.
The National Health Service Blood and Transplant organization said a proportion of its 14 million-strong organ donor list has been affected by technical errors since 1999 — and that a small group of people may have had organs removed without proper authorization as a result.
The programming error meant that, for example, people who wanted to donate organs such as their lungs or their skin were incorrectly identified as people who wanted to donate their corneas or heart.
The Sunday Telegraph newspaper said the glitch affected about 800,000 people — 45 of whom have since died and donated organs. Just under half of those are thought to have made donations based on the erroneous data, the paper said.
An official at the National Health Service did not dispute the paper's figures although she did not confirm them either, saying an investigation was ongoing. She spoke anonymously because officials were still gathering information before contacting affected families.
She stressed that everyone on the register was a willing donor of some kind.
"There's no suggestion that people have been signed up to the register who didn't want to be there," she said, adding that no data had been lost and the problem had since been contained.
"There's no possibility of any incorrect data being used today," she said.
The revelation comes at an awkward time for the government, which has been pushing to increase Britain's rate of organ donation, one of the lowest in Europe. Officials have poured millions of pounds (dollars) into an awareness campaign and floated the idea of automatically designating every person a donor unless they or their survivors opt out.
Currently, every Briton is automatically considered a non-donor unless they register as one or their family decides to donate their organs after death.
The glitch also comes atop a series of information technology mishaps, raising questions over the government's ability to handle its citizens' data. Officials have misplaced data on 3 million driving test candidates, 600,000 army applicants, and 5,000 prison officers over the past few years.
Those were dwarfed by the loss, in 2007, of computer disks carrying information — including banking records — on nearly half the U.K. population.
The latest mistake came to light late last year when the Blood and Transplant organization wrote to new donors thanking them for joining the register and outlining what they had agreed to donate.
Some respondents wrote back to complain that the information was wrong.
Joyce Robins, the co-director of patient watchdog group Patient Concern, said the transplant errors were "a disaster."
"The trouble is that it happens so often. We're constantly being told that our data is safe, and it's rubbish. Every time we're told that it'll all be tightened up, it'll never happen again, and it never does."