Number of Donor Organs Carrying Hepatitis C Rising Due to Opioid Crisis

The opioid epidemic has triggered a hardship that most people likely haven’t thought of: A higher number of donated organs are infected with the hepatitis C virus.

Dr. Winston Abara, a hepatitis researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), explains that as the number of drug overdose deaths and acute hepatitis infections increases, young people are most affected. These are the people who are most likely to be eligible organ donors.

Opioid Users Considered Increased Risk Donors

In the years 2010-2017, the number of organs obtained for transplant obtained from “increased risk” donors (people at risk of hepatitis due to drug abuse) tripled, according to the results of a new study published in the January 25 edition of CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

In 2010, approximately nine percent of donor organs came from people in this category. By 2017, that number had jumped to over 26 percent, according to Dr. Abara’s team.

The number of organs obtained from people who died as the result of “drug intoxication” tripled as well. They climbed from just over four percent in 2010 to over 13 percent by 2017, according to CDC researchers. Organ donor deaths linked to injected drugs like heroin increased fivefold during the same period.

This is concerning, since tainted needles are a prime source of infection with hepatitis C, which can lead to liver disease, a potentially fatal condition, over time. Due to advances in medical care, donor kidneys, along with livers and other organs can now be used for transplant and may save potentially save the lives of the thousands of people on waiting lists.

Medications Available to Treat Hep C in Transplant Recipients

Powerful new medications exist to rid the body of hepatitis C and render the transplant viable. The transplant recipient would be screened after receiving the donor organ. If a hepatitis C infection is diagnosed, the donor organ recipient is offered antiviral treatment.

Dr. David Bernstein, a liver specialist, stated that understanding whether an organ donor has a history of addiction is essential. He said that when that knowledge is available, organ recipients and their doctors can be notified and screened after transplant surgery.