Surging overdose deaths fuel organ donations

As the opioid epidemic continues to fuel record levels of drug overdoses across the nation, organ donation in regions like New England is getting an unexpected boost from the untimely drug-related deaths, according to The New York Times.

Ten months into 2016, the New England Organ Bank has tallied 69 people who died from drug overdoses and donated their organs. This group of donors accounts for 27 percent of all organ donation in the region, marking a considerable increase from 2010 when eight donors (4 percent) used drugs, according to the Times. These 69 deceased drug users saved the lives of 202 people.

"It's an unexpected silver lining to what is otherwise a pretty horrendous situation," said Alexandra K. Glazier, CEO of the New England Organ Bank.

While organ donation has been traditionally associated with car crashes — hence the notation on driver's licenses — death from drug overdose overtook car deaths as the leading cause of accidental death in 2014. According to the Times, in 2014, drug overdoses killed 47,000 while car accidents accounted for the deaths of 32,000.

Drug users, while considered high-risk due to the prevalence of HIV and hepatitis C infections among this population, are the fastest-growing category of organ donors. Organ shortages have likely spurred this growth. Transplant center officials say rigorous screening protocols make the risk of transplanting an infected organ minimal.

"The risk of actual infection transmission with current screening strategies is numerically very, very small," David Klassen, MD, CMO for the United Network for Organ Sharing, told the Times. Dr. Klassen also said drug users tend to be younger and more virile than other donors.

In the past, organs from donors infected with hepatitis C and HIV were discarded, but improved treatments for both conditions and organ shortages have changed that practice.

"The severe shortage of organs and imminent risk of death in some patients are the basis for offering a hep C positive organ to a patient who is not hep C positive," Adel Bozorgzadeh, MD, chief of the division of organ transplantation at UMass Memorial in Worcester, which has a reputation for performing transplants on high-risk patients, told the Times. "With recent availability of highly effective treatment for hep C, it makes sense to consider this approach for the occasional patient who otherwise has, objectively, a very high risk of dying."

Recently, surgeons at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore performed the world's first HIV-positive to HIV-positive liver transplant and the United States' first HIV-positive to HIV-positive kidney transplant.

According to the Times, there are 120,000 people in U.S. waiting for organs. Though 85 patients receive a transplant daily, 22 die every day before a match is found.

More articles on quality: 
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