Just over one in eight of all organs transplanted in the United States now originate from people who died of drug overdoses, a study published Monday found.
The study, written by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, examined nearly 340,000 transplant surgeries performed in the United States between 2000 and 2017. In 2000, just about 1 percent of all organ donors died from drug overdoses. By 2016, such deaths accounted for 12.7 percent of all donors — a 24-fold increase.
The study didn’t examine how many of these donors overdosed on opioids, but opioid-linked deaths have also surged in recent years. They accounted for almost two-thirds of the more than 63,000 drug-overdose deaths that occurred in the United States in 2016, a 27 percent spike from 2015. Earlier this month, U.S. Surgeon General declared that the United States is “losing a person every 12.5 minutes from an opioid overdose.”
"The current epidemic of deaths from overdose is a tragedy,” Christine Durand, an assistant professor of medicine and oncology at Johns Hopkins University who led the study, told CNN. “It would also be tragic to continue to underutilize life-saving transplants from donors.”
The gulf between the number of people who need organs and those who ultimately receive them is vast. As of Monday evening, about 115,000 people are awaiting an organ transplant that will save their life, according to the national Organ Procurement & Transplantation Network. But just 8,510 organ transplants have been performed so far in the first four months of 2018.
More than half of all people who died of drug overdoses and donated their organs were marked as “increased-infectious risk donors,” the study also discovered, meaning that their organs were thought to carry an increased risk for infections like HIV or hepatitis C. Such donors must undergo extra tests before their organs can be used.
But, researchers found, the risk of receiving one of these viruses is fairly low. And five years after a transplant, recipients of organs that from people who’d died of drug overdoses survived at similar rates as people who’d received organs from people who died of trauma.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, an average of 20 people die every day while waiting for an organ transplant.
Cover image: NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 07: Heroin users prepare to shoot up on the street in a South Bronx neighborhood which has the highest rate of heroin-involved overdose deaths in the city on October 7, 2017 in New York City. Like Staten Island, parts of the Bronx are experiencing an epidemic in drug use, especially heroin and other opioid based drugs. More than 1,370 New Yorkers died from overdoses in 2016, the majority of those deaths involved opioids. According to the Deputy Attorney General, drug overdose are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)