Organ donations on the rise, but increase linked to drug overdoses
Friday, May 27, 2016
Overall organ donations increased by 5 percent in 2015, which may seem like an encouraging statistic. But according to government data, 1 out of every 11 donors is a drug overdose victim.
In 2015, nearly 850 organ donors died of drug intoxication, according to Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network data. That's 270 percent more than in 2006, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). In New England alone, the number of donors who died of drug overdoses has increased 575 percent over the past five years.
"The increase in donors in the past year is pretty substantial and not really anticipated," said David Klassen, chief medical officer for UNOS. "A significant part of it can be explained by the drug overdoses as contributing to it, but not all of it. There's a lot of effort in the transplant community to increase donation and awareness of seeking every last donor and try to be as efficient as possible."
Even so, the number of people dying from drug overdoses is staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of drug overdose deaths increased by 137 percent between 2000 and 2015. Prescription pain killers and heroin are behind many of the overdoses.
According to the CDC, 47,055 people died of drug overdoses in 2014. A record number of those deaths — 19,000 — were due to prescription opioids and heroin.
"It's a horrible situation," Klassen was quoted as saying in The Washington Post. "But the transplant donation is a way of potentially salvaging some good out of an awful situation."
Organs donated by donors who have overdosed are deemed safe. Because of their lifestyles, these donors are labeled "high-risk" and recipients have to give consent to receive transplants from such donors.
"We had to convince (hospitals and recipients) that these organs should be used because the risk is low," said Helen M. Nelson, the New England Organ Bank's senior vice president of organ donation services.
All donors are screened for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, but high-risk donors receive additional scrutiny, Klassen said.
"High risk is a relative thing," he said. "The reality is the risk of disease transmission from someone who is screened through that process is relatively low."
According to government statistics, most organ donors die from stroke, blunt injury and cardiovascular conditions. Those who die from overdoses actually tend to skew younger and healthier than traditional donors.
"In many ways, they are ... potentially excellent donors, from an organ quality standpoint," Klassen said.
It's true that prolonged drug use can impact cardiac function or the kidneys, so those medical factors are assessed carefully, he added. But with so many people on waiting lists, it's hard to pass up an organ when it's offered.
There are more than 121,000 people in the U.S. on waiting lists. Most are waiting kidney transplants. For them, dialysis is a viable alternative. But for the 15 percent waiting on heart or liver transplants, the only alternative is dying, Klassen said.
"If you pass by an organ offer, you don't know when the next one might come," he said.
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