The Reason It's a Good Year to Get an Organ Transplant

July 5th 2016

Lucy Tiven

The number of available donor organs has risen in recent years, but don't celebrate too quickly.

The surplus is in part due to the staggering number of donors dying from prescription opioid and heroin overdoses, Vice News reported.

Between the years 2006 and 2015, the number of organ donors who died from drug overdoses increased 270 percent across the U.S., according to United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) data.

"It's a horrible situation," UNOS chief medical officer David Klassen told the Washington Post. "But the transplant donation is a way of potentially salvaging some good out of an awful situation."

As ATTN: has previously reported, the fatal opioid overdose rate has almost quadrupled since 1999. Today, one out of 11 organ donors is a victim of drug overdose, according to the Washington Post.

As expected, the spike in available organs is particularly noticeable in regions devastated by opioid epidemic.

In 2014, Life Connection of Ohio — a nonprofit organization dedicated to organ recovery and donation in Northwest and West Central Ohio — received 18 percent of its organ donations from donors who fatally overdosed on drugs, a big jump from the previous year, when only 3 percent of donors died of overdoses, Vice News reported.

Officials have credited the surge in organ donations to Ohio's heroin epidemic.

"Heroin is causing younger people to be organ donors," Matthew Bailey, an education and safety administrator for Life Connection of Ohio, told the Butler County news outlet Journal-News.

In New England, rising numbers of opioid fatalities are also supplying organ banks.

"The number [of donations from overdose victims] rose from 8 to 54 — or by 575 percent — over the last five years, according to statistics compiled by the New England Organ Bank," U.S. News and World Report observed.

Are organs from overdose victims safe?

Though drug users are labeled "high-risk" donors, experts believe the risks are minimal.

"High risk is a relative thing," Klassen told the Washington Post. "The reality is the risk of disease transmission from someone who is screened through that process is relatively low."

He also explained that all organ donors are tested for HIV, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C, and that drug users are screened more rigorously than other organ donors.

"Truthfully, people who are dying of drug overdoses are young and tend to be otherwise healthy," he added.

Though the organ surplus sends a chilling message about opioid addiction, a single organ donation is often the difference between life and death.

In fact, one organ donor can save as many as eight lives, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And with more than 120,000 people waiting for organ transplants, there's a silver lining to be found in this increase.

Helen M. Nelson, the New England Organ Bank's senior vice president of organ donation services, told U.S. News and World Report that families of the deceased often found meaning in the process.

"Many of the families we encounter have been going through this addiction for several years," she explained. "It's almost as if the families were preparing for this death; many feel great comfort in knowing that some good has come out of it."

[h/t Vice News]