"About 40% of the increase (in the past five years) tracks back to the drug intoxication issue," said Dr. David Klassen, the network's chief medical officer. And although the data didn't determine which drugs contributed to those overdoses, Klassen said opioids were probably involved. "We don't have the data ... to absolutely say that with certainty, but I think that's a reasonable assumption."
In the past five years, the number of deceased organ donors increased 24%, while the number of donors who died of drug overdose jumped 144%. In 2013, just 560 donors had died from drug overdose or intoxication; last year, there were 1,367.
In fact, Klassen noted that people who died of overdoses are usually good candidates for organ donation. "They tend to be younger and tend not to have the burdens of diseases associated with aging," he said.
While the drugs may cause people to stop breathing or their hearts to stop, they don't necessarily harm the organs, leaving them viable for transplant.
The most recent numbers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that more than 63,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016. More than 42,000 of those deaths involved some type of opioid, the most common being illicit drugs like heroin and black-market fentanyl. And although numbers for 2017 haven't been released, provisional data show no signs of a slowdown.
Klassen also pointed out that policy changes in 2013 broadened the criteria for potential organ donations from those who may be at higher risk for HIV to include those with increased risk of transmitting hepatitis B and C. This increased risk can be determined from exposures such as sexual activity or intravenous drug use; it doesn't necessarily mean a donor has the virus.
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Advances in the science and practice of organ procurement and transplant as well as public awareness have also contributed to the record number of donors, Klassen said, but it's hard to deny that the opioid epidemic has been a factor.
"The opioid epidemic is clearly not something anyone expected. It's clearly a tragic situation. But there is a little bit of a silver lining," he said.