Drug Overdose Epidemic Leads To Rise in Organ Donors

By John Lavitt 05/03/16

While the rise in organ donors could save more lives than ever, some question the safety of collecting organs from overdose victims. 

Drug Overdose Epidemic Leads To Rise in Organ Donors
Photo via Shutterstock/Everett Collection

Has there ever been such a dark silver lining to a health crisis? According to government data, the rise in overdose deaths has led to a dramatic increase in organ donors. 

That donor lists are expanding is a relief for those waiting for an organ transplant—the wait kills about 22 people each day. But the good news comes at a cost. The data shows that between 2000 and 2015, the percentage of organ donors who died from drug overdose rose from 1.1% to 9.34%. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 78 people die every day from opioid overdose. According to the Guardian, the rate of drug overdose deaths increased by 137% since 2000, including a 200% increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids. 

Given the tragic nature of fatal overdoses, most families are more than willing to donate a loved one’s organs as a kind of final redemptive act. "Many of the families we encounter have been going through this addiction for several years," Helen M. Nelson, senior vice president of organ donation services at New England Organ Bank, told U.S. News & World Report. "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.”

However, there is a risk of contracting disease from a donor, particularly when dealing with injection drug users. In 2007, four people contracted HIV and hepatitis C from donated organs. But such cases are rare in light of modern advances in medical screening technology, the Guardian notes. And considering the risk of organ failure and death, most patients can look past the low risk of contracting disease from a donor, says transplant surgeon and medical adviser for the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations, Nikole Neidlinger. "When that incidence is dramatically lower than your incidence of dying on the waitlist, most patients will say yes," she told the Guardian.

The main cause of death for deceased organ donors is blunt injuries, cardiovascular causes and stroke. There are currently more than 77,800 people on the organ donation waitlist. Last year, only 9,080 deceased donors provided organs for those on the waitlist. It's obvious that the need is great. 

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.