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Opioid addiction could be factor in growing number of donor organs: experts

Last Updated Jun 20, 2017 at 6:18 am EDT

Fentanyl pills are shown in an undated police handout photo. National RCMP are working with the United Nations and China to dampen the influx of dangerous opioid fentanyl onto Canada's streets, but one high-level investigator is expecting the insidious problem could worsen. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT)

Amid the growing death toll of Canada’s ongoing opioid epidemic, there’s evidence of a correlating increase in the number of healthy human organs available for transplant.

The agency that manages organ donations and transplants in British Columbia recently began tracking the data after physicians there began to see more organs coming from patients who had died of a drug overdose.

B.C. Transplant says one-quarter of the organs transplanted in the first six weeks of this year were donated by a patient who died of a fentanyl overdose.

The agency also says out of the 51 people in B.C. who donated at least one organ after their death between Jan. 1 and June 8, 25 had a positive toxicology test.

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Not all died of a drug overdose, nor did they all use opioids, but the spokeswoman for B.C. Transplant says the agency is definitely seeing an increase in organs from opioid-related deaths and is continuing to track and analyze the data.

The agency doesn’t have comparison data on fentanyl deaths and organ donors from previous years because it hadn’t started tracking it yet.

B.C. has been ground zero of the opioid epidemic in Canada, with 575 deaths from fentanyl alone in 2016 — five times the number of 2015 deaths.

Across the country, Canada saw an estimated 2,500 opioid-related deaths in 2016.

And the number of organs available for transplant in the country has been on the rise in recent years, largely as a result of more education about the benefits of organ donation.

In B.C. there were 20 organ donors in the first six weeks of 2017, exactly twice the number in the first six weeks of 2016.

The number of fentanyl-related deaths in January and February went from 73 in 2016 to 139 in 2017.

The most current national data on organ donors is from 2015, when there were 652 deceased donors, as compared to those who donate an organ while they are still alive. That was up from 598 in 2014.

Half of that increase came in B.C.

The United States is also seeing data which suggests a correlation between the opioid crisis and organ donors.

Dr. Randall Starling, head of heart failure and transplant medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, told a Toronto conference last week about a record number of heart transplants in the United States in 2016, up 13.8 per cent compared to 2015.

The United Network of Organ Sharing, which manages the U.S. organ donation network, said the total number of organ donations in the United States was up nine per cent in 2016, and up 20 per cent compared to 2012.

“Nobody knows why this happened, it’s all speculation,” said Starling.

However, he said, the network has reported a higher percentage of organ donors dying of drug overdoses.

“Our perception — and it’s not a proven fact — is there, in part, are more organ donors of otherwise young healthy people that are dying from opioid overdoses,” Starling said.

“It’s a very, very sad situation, and ironic that horrible epidemic is perhaps helping some people.”

Most people who die of a drug overdose end up brain dead with a fully functional circulation system, in much the same way as a car crash or drowning victim leaves behind many healthy organs.

All organs are tested for diseases like HIV or hepatitis; Starling said provided those tests are negative, he does not believe there’s a medical reason not to use an organ from a known drug user.

Policies in both the U.S. and Canada require patients to provide informed consent before receiving a donated organ from an injection drug user.

Starling said there remains a significant shortage of organs: in the U.S., only 1.2 per cent of patients with advanced heart failure who are awaiting a transplant actually receive a new heart.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information said more than 4,500 people were waiting for a donor organ in 2015, with 262 people dying on the waiting list that year.

Starling said the opioid epidemic is not how he wants to see the shortage problem solved, however: “I hope this source of organ donors goes away.”

— Follow @mrabson on Twitter