Firefighters transport an overdose victim to a hospital

People who die after overdosing on drugs are driving a rise in the number of organs available for transplant in the United States. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty

Health care

Soaring overdose death rate fuels rise in organ transplantation

Organs from people who died of drug overdose are just as healthy as those donated by those who died of other causes.

The number of organ transplants in the United States has grown, in large part because of a rise in deaths from drug overdoses.

The death rate from drug intoxication in the United States more than tripled between 1999 and 2016 — a year in which nearly 64,000 people in the country died from substances such as prescription opioids. To determine the impact of that trend, Mandeep Mehra at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and his colleagues examined organ-transplant statistics.

The team found that from 2000 to 2016, the proportion of organs that came from donors killed by drugs rose from 1% to nearly 14%. That rise was the primary contributor to growth in the total number of US organ transplantations in the past five years.

Patients who received hearts or lungs from donors who died of overdoses were just as likely to survive the first year after transplant as patients who received organs from people who died of head injuries.