WEDNESDAY, May 16, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Another study finds that organ donations from Americans who have died from an opioid overdose have risen dramatically in the past two decades.
"We were surprised to learn that almost all of the increased transplant activity in the United States within the last five years is a result of the drug overdose crisis," study lead researcher Dr. Mandeep Mehra said in a news release from the University of Utah. Mehra directs the Heart and Vascular Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
His team found that such transplants are often just as successful and safe as those involving organs obtained from trauma victims or individuals who died of natural causes.
The study echoes similar findings reported in April in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore.
"This is a relatively recent phenomenon which has occurred as a result of the tragic opioid epidemic currently faced by the United States," study author Dr. Christine Durand said at the time. She's an assistant professor at Hopkins and a transplant physician at the university's hospital.
"In 2000," she added, "only one in every 100 deceased donors died from a drug overdose. Today, that number is more than one in every 10 deceased organ donors." That amounts to a 24-fold increase over the past 18 years, her team found.
In the new study, Mehra and colleagues in Boston and Utah looked at 17 years of transplant records for 2,360 organ recipient patients. The investigators found no difference in one-year post-transplant survival for people who received a donated organ from a victim of a drug overdose, compared to patients who received an organ from someone who died from causes such as blunt trauma, gunshots, hemorrhage or stroke.
The findings should open up more organs for transplant -- something that's desperately needed, since more than 110,000 Americans are now on transplant waiting lists.
"In the unfortunate circumstances where opioid deaths happen, organ donation can extend life of many patients in need of transplant," study senior author Dr. Josef Stehlik said in the University of Utah news release. "Yet, these organs are often not considered suitable for organ donation," said Stehlik, who directs the Heart Transplant Program at the university.
A minority of organs donated by overdose victims did have some potential health risks for recipients, the Johns Hopkins study found.
Overdose donors were more likely to have had hepatitis C or be tagged with an "increased infection risk" label, Durand's team reported. Specifically, 18 percent and 56 percent had hepatitis C or were labeled risky, respectively, over the study period.
This compared with 3 percent and 14 percent among trauma donors, respectively, and 4 percent and 9 percent among natural cause donors, respectively, the study found. Durand added that hepatitis C appears to be increasingly common among overdose donors, rising from just 8 percent in 2000 to 30 percent today.
In any case, Mehra said efforts to curb the ongoing U.S. opioid abuse epidemic are ongoing, so other means of boosting organ donation must be found.
"We must look to new ways to increase organ donor recovery by concentrating on greater use of marginal organs or by expanding the suitable donor pool by using new technologies to improve organ function before the transplant takes place," Mehra said.
The new study was published online May 17 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
There's more on organ donations at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.