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The tragic fate of some gives hope to others
The drug problem in the United States has been increasing steadily for decades. Accordingly, the number of drug deaths is increasing. This tragic development has shown that the number of organ donations resulting from overdose deaths has increased dramatically. The number of drug deaths who donated at least one organ rose from 59 in 2000 to 1,029 in 2016. In the US, around 14 percent of all organ donations now come from drug-related deaths.
Are these organs suitable for a transplant? This question was recently investigated by American scientists in a study. Researchers from the University of Utah Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital looked at data that had been recorded during transplants over the past 17 years. No significant changes in the survival chances of the recipients could be determined if the donor organ came from drug victims. The results of the study were published in the "New England Journal of Medicine".
The drug crisis offers an unexpected opportunity
Right now, more than 110,000 people in the United States are waiting for a donor organ. "We were surprised to learn that almost all of the increased donor organ population in the United States in the past five years has been a result of the drug crisis," said Mandeep R. Mehra, medical director of the Brigham Heart and Vascular Center and lead author the study, in a press release on the study results.
No irreversible damage to the organs
In the study, the researchers examined data from 2,360 patients who had received a heart or lung transplant. The scientists compared donor organs derived from drug-related deaths to those from other causes of death, such as gunshot wounds, suffocation, head injuries or strokes. The researchers focused on the likelihood of survival in the first year, as most of the problems manifest themselves during this period. The results showed that organs from drug-related deaths had a survival rate similar to that of other origins. This alleviated medical concerns that the organs suffered irreversible damage from the overdose.
Death extends life
"In the unfortunate circumstances in which opioid deaths occur, organ donation can extend the lives of many patients who need a transplant," reports one of the lead authors, Josef Stehlik. Previously, these organs were often considered unsuitable. Stehlik is confident that doctors across the country can now be sure that organs with a deadly drug addiction background are suitable for transplantation if they pass the required tests.
At best, this is not a reliable source
With the U.S. government investing millions in fighting the opioid epidemic, the transplant community is not preparing for a long-term source of drug-related organs. "We need to find new ways to gain donable organs by using new technologies to improve organ function before the transplant," Mehra suggests.
There are few organs for drug victims in euros
The research team also examined transplant data from eight European countries. They found that the number of organ donors who died from substance abuse was consistently below one percent. Stehlik sees this number as a successful anti-drug policy in Europe.
Can such organs be used in Germany?
Donor organs from drug-related deaths can be used in Germany. For the time being, these must be checked more thoroughly for infections such as HIV or hepatitis. However, the proportion hardly plays a role. "The proportion of organs is extremely low," Birgit Blome from the German Organ Transplantation Foundation told the news agency dpa. He was only 0.6 percent of all donors between 2011 and 2013. (vb)