America’s heroin epidemic is an unprecedented tragedy that continues to affect people of all walks of life. Yet, in a morbid twist of fate, it has also positively impacted another problem within the United States health care system: an ever-growing need for organ donors.
As the number of people who have lost their lives from heroin overdoses has increased, so have the number of people on the organ transplant list who have received life-saving organ donations. "It's a silver lining to what is absolutely a tragedy,” Alexandra K. Glazier, the New England Organ Bank's CEO and president, told U.S. New & World Report.
In March 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report indicating that death rates tied to heroin overdoses had quadrupled over the past decade. And while this research showed heroin-induced deaths, other statistics show how a rise in prescription opioid painkiller abuse has opened the gateway for more widespread heroin use.
According to data gathered by the United Network for Organ Sharing, the number of donors who died of overdoses increased from 230 in 2006 to 848 in 2015, representing a 270 percent surge. Some of these donors had given consent to use their organs prior to their death, while others were signed up postmortem by a family member.
"Many of the families we encounter have been going through this addiction for several years," Glazier explained. "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."
The overdose victim is a relatively new kind of organ donor. While the number of people who fall into this slot has increased, victims of cardiovascular issues, gunshot wounds, blunt injuries, and asphyxiation remain the most common types of organs donors.
It is estimated that around 22 people die each day while waiting for an organ donation in the U.S. But while the heroin deaths may help to save these lives, some worry about the quality of the tissue, which, when it comes down to it, is donated by someone suffering from a drug addiction. Similar concerns have been raised over the use of HIV-positive organ transplants.
In 2013, President Barack Obama signed the HIV Organ Policy Equity Act, which allowed for HIV-positive organs to be donated to HIV-positive patients. Before then, the use of organs from an HIV-positive patient was strictly forbidden for any purpose, and all HIV-positive organs had to be discarded.
That said, the HOPE Act has opened the door for research on infected organ donors. Not only would this help to improve HIV-positive patients’ lives, it would help anyone who is waiting on a transplant list.