As the number of opioid overdoses climbed in recent decades, so has the number of donor hearts and other organs, according to a retrospective study published in The Annals of Thoracic Surgery. Overdose death organ donations experienced a 14-fold increase in recent years from about 1% in 2000 to nearly 17% today.

Researchers with New York University Lagone Health in New York City said the increase in opioid overdose donor hearts and organs was “consistent with the rising opioid epidemic.” In 2018, some states saw a quarter of heart donors from overdose victims. Delaware had the highest rate with half its donor hearts coming from opioid overdose donors.

The reality of this situation is tragic, and the public is naturally averse to thinking about these scenarios. But incorporating less stringent discard criteria for donor organs that come from opioid overdose victims “may help mitigate the tragedy of the opioid overdose epidemic,” the researchers concluded.

“Survival outcomes of recipients of hearts that come from donors that have died from opioid overdose are equivalent to ones that we have traditionally been using, and because of this we believe that there are more donors out there that can be utilized,” researcher Nader Moazami, M.D., told MedPage Today.

“It adds on to prior literature showing that the outcome with organs from these higher risk donors are just as good as in our donor pool from lower risk donors. It also highlights really nicely just the number of potential donors that we could be using that we aren’t using to get our patients transplanted,” added Mary Keebler, M.D., with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Opioid overdose victims’ hearts tend to be younger and thus better quality than non-opioid related death donors, researchers noted. And while mortality and graft survival were similar between overdose-death donor and non-overdose-death donor groups, long-term implications of using high-risk organs such as those from opioid overdose victims has yet to be thoroughly investigated.

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