Heart Transplants Surge as Overdoses Increase

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

One of the more ghoulish and yet beneficial aspects of the overdose crisis is that it has led to a surge in organ transplants. In 2000, only about 1 percent of organ donors were overdose victims. By 2017, when over 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, over 13 percent of organ donors were overdose victims.

A new study by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital has documented how the number of hearts available for transplant has increased dramatically, particularly in states like Pennsylvania that have been hard hit by the overdose crisis.  

"In the U.S., the drug crisis is clearly not uniform, and neither is the rate of recovered hearts from drug-intoxication-related deaths," said lead author Mandeep Mehra, MD, the medical director of Brigham's Heart and Vascular Center.

Mehra and his colleagues analyzed CDC data on overdose deaths and from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, and reported their findings in The New England Journal of Medicine.

They found major increases in drug-related deaths and organ harvesting in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and other Northeast states, and in Florida and Texas. Overall, the team estimated that 6.24 hearts were recovered for every 1,000 lives lost due to drug intoxication.

NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE

NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE

Among the 37,232 donors whose hearts were transplanted from 1999 through 2017, the percentage of those who died from overdoses rose from 1.5% to 17.6 percent. And as the number of hearts available for transplant grew, the waiting list for donated hearts began shrinking in 2016. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, there are currently 45 people in the U.S. waiting for a heart transplant.

"This is a very important outcome indicating that people are now adopting organs from drug-intoxication-related deaths as a viable source for lifesaving donor organs," said Mehra. "Although we support organ donation recovery from this source, those of us in the transplant community also strongly support effective efforts to combat the drug overdose crisis. We must pursue ways to target the crisis while simultaneously looking for new ways to increase the availability of viable donor organs."

There has long been a stigma against using donated organs from overdose victims because the organs may be damaged due to reduced oxygen supply and because drug addicts are more likely to be infected with HIV, hepatitis and other communicable diseases. But those risks have been minimized with modern testing.

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 over 113,000 Americans currently waiting for an organ donation, including many who have been on the waiting list for years.