Overdose Crisis Boosts Organ Donations

By Pat Anson, Editor

Drug overdose deaths have reached unprecedented levels in the United States, with over 63-thousand people dying in 2016 from overdoses involving antidepressants, illicit fentanyl, heroin, prescription opioids and other drugs.

Those deaths have led to an unexpected gift for thousands of Americans who needed organ transplants. Researchers at University of Utah Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital say there has been a steady increase in the number of organs available for transplantation – due in large part to the escalating overdose crisis. They documented an 11-fold increase in the proportion of organ donors who died of drug overdoses from 2000 to 2016.

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"We were surprised to learn that almost all of the increased transplant activity in the United States within the last five years is a result of the drug overdose crisis," said Mandeep Mehra, MD, medical director of the Heart and Vascular Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital and lead author of a research letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Mehra and his colleagues examined transplantation records and found no significant change in the recipients' chance of survival when the organ donation came from an overdose victim. The survival rate of 2,360 patients after receiving a heart or lung transplant from donors who died from overdoses was no different than those who received organs from donors who died from gunshot wounds, asphyxiation, head injuries or stroke.

There has long been a stigma against using donated organs from overdose victims because the organs may be damaged due to reduced oxygen supply that may occur during an overdose. There are also fears the organs could be infected with HIV, hepatitis or other communicable diseases due to high rates of intravenous drug use by overdose victims. As a result, some organs harvested from overdose donors are discarded.

But researchers say those risks can be minimized with modern testing.

"I feel hopeful that doctors across the country will read this and feel confident that organs that pass the required tests are safe for transplant," said Josef Stehlik, MD, medical director of the Heart Transplant Program at University of Utah Health. "This awareness is especially important when organ procurement professionals have to decide on use of potential donors with this high-risk history."

The United Network for Organ Sharing requires organ recipients to be made aware of the circumstances of higher risk donations, so they can decide whether or not to accept it. There are nearly 115,000 Americans currently waiting for an organ donation, including many who have been on the waiting list for years.

"We must look to new ways to increase organ donor recovery by concentrating on greater use of marginal organs or by expanding the suitable donor pool by using new technologies to improve organ function before the transplant takes place," Mehra said.

A similar study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine also found an increase in the proportion of organ donors who died from an overdose. In 2000, only 1.1% of donors were overdose victims. By 2017, that grew to 13.4 percent.

"For people waiting on an organ transplant right now, I would like to think that our studies bring them hope that they could receive a transplant and have more donors that could help them," Dr. Christine Durand, a professor of medicine and oncology at Johns Hopkins University, told CNN. "We have an obligation to optimize the use of all organs donated. The donors, families and patients waiting deserve our best effort to use every gift of life we can."