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Canada’s Fentanyl Crisis Has Triggered a Rise in Organ Transplants

More organ donors are dying of drug overdoses, according to new stats released this week.

av Sarah Berman
2017 02 20, 6:58am

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

After a brutal year where more than 900 people died of drug overdoses in British Columbia, doctors are pointing to one morbid upside.

It might sound like something out of a dystopian horror comic, where drug users are wiped out and harvested for organs. New stats released by the health agency responsible for organ transplants show that's not exactly a far-off nightmare anymore. Health officials have noticed a significant uptick in organ donor deaths, and say that fentanyl is likely playing a role.

According to BC Transplant, the number of organ donors in the first weeks of 2017 has doubled over this time last year, from 10 to 20. That's resulted in 59 transplants, up from 37 organs over the same period in 2016.

"It's heartbreaking anytime someone dies suddenly in a way that makes them a candidate to be an organ donor," reads an emailed statement from Tina Robinson, communications manager for the health agency. "It's remarkable that the legacy of some of these people is giving the gift of life to someone waiting for a transplant."

"We started tracking the connection between fentanyl and organ donation more closely at the start of 2017, and fentanyl has been a contributing factor in about a quarter of our donors so far this year."

Read More: How North America Found Itself in the Grips of an Opioid Crisis

BC Transplant's statement cautions against drawing conclusions based on a small amount of recent data. But long term trends show the proportion of organ donors dying from overdose has gone up steadily over many years. Back in 2013, 7.5 percent of organ donors tested positive for drugs. In 2016, that number rose to 22.7 percent.

Robinson challenged the notion that lungs or kidneys from drug users would harm the patients that receive them. "Drug overdose does not stop someone from becoming an organ donor," she told VICE. "Physicians will only offer organs that they believe to be safe to recipients, and where the benefits of transplants would outweigh the risk."

This news comes as the federal government just announced new funding to battle the country's overdose epidemic. That included $10 million in urgent support for BC, which has been hardest hit.

Though the exact use of that funding has not yet been announced, Canada's health minister suggested more opioid substitution treatment, expanded police enforcement, new safe injection sites and more lab testing will be "priority areas" during a Friday press conference in Victoria.

On the same day, Surrey became the latest BC municipality to submit an application for a supervised injection site. The suburb has seen the second-highest amount of ODs behind Vancouver, with 110 deaths last year.

The crisis continues to stretch far beyond urban centres. The whole province saw 116 overdose deaths in January, down from a record-breaking 142 the month before.

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