U.S. organ transplants rise for 4th straight year, helped by opioid death toll

January 16, 2017 GMT

Organ transplants in the U.S. reached a record high in 2016 — an unexpected consequence of the national opioid epidemic’s rising death toll.

The Richmond-based United Network for Organ Sharing — or UNOS — reported that 33,606 transplants took place last year, marking an 8.5 percent increase over 2015 and a 19.8 percent increase over 2012.

“That magnitude of change in one year is really quite substantial,” said Dr. David Klassen, UNOS’ chief medical officer. “The opioid epidemic accounts for nearly 50 percent of the increase over last year.”

Because opioids typically clear out of a donor’s system quickly, as a general rule the drugs do not damage any particular organ within the donor, Klassen said.

The number of U.S. deaths from opioids — a type of drug that includes prescription painkillers as well as illicit substances such as heroin — jumped from 28,647 in 2014 to 33,091 in 2015, the most recent year for which data were available, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

In Virginia, 701 transplants took place in 2016, up from 649 in 2015. According to the Virginia Department of Health, 822 people died from opioid overdoses in the first nine months of 2016, compared with 811 in all of 2015.

The national increase in transplants was pushed by a 9.2 percent rise in the number of deceased donors from 2015 to 2016, a UNOS news release states. About 82 percent of the transplants last year involved deceased donors, as opposed to living donors.

“Clearly, the opioid epidemic is a huge tragedy for the country as a whole, but you can salvage a little bit of good out of a terrible situation sometimes,” Klassen said.


Midlothian resident Michael Swafford Sr. was waiting for a new liver for about a year and a half, but he had been sick for three years.

He had cirrhosis of the liver and repeatedly had to have his stomach emptied at VCU Medical Center because his liver could not flush his body of liquids.

“I was going downhill quick,” said Swafford, now 61. “My wife told me a couple of times that they thought they were losing me.”

While waiting for his liver, he grew very thin — losing about 100 pounds — and became jaundiced.

“I was petrified,” he said. “I have five grandchildren and two sons and my wife. I wanted to be here for them. But I was real sick. It took a toll on me.”

In late May, Swafford and his family got word that a liver was available, and he was rushed to VCU Medical Center. He spent about a month in the hospital while his body adjusted, and now he said he is doing much better and getting healthier every day.

Swafford received his liver from a 20-year-old man in Tennessee who did not die of an overdose. He said he was told to wait a year before contacting the donor’s family but, as soon as he can, he will write them a letter to thank them and let them know what the donation meant to him and his family.

“You know, I get teary-eyed when I talk about it,” Swafford said. “But I’m grateful for the donors, their loved ones. They pass, and they donate their organs to help people and give people another chance at life. I am blessed that I got a liver.”


In addition to the opioid epidemic, Klassen said the continued rise in organ transplants is reflective of physicians’ willingness to accept donors they may have rejected in the past.

“The transplant community has been looking to expand the pool of potential donors who are eligible to donate,” he said.

Klassen said that includes those who die after cardiac death, who may not be considered brain dead in the traditional sense of suffering a traumatic brain injury, but who can still become donors because typically their family has withdrawn care.

Older donors also are now considered more carefully, he added. Though their organs may not be appropriate for a 20-year-old transplant recipient, they may be perfectly acceptable for an older recipient.

Klassen cautioned that while the rise in organ transplants is good news for the hundreds of thousands of potential recipients on the national waiting list, donors are still needed because many more are still waiting.

“The number of organs that are available does not really come close to meeting a need at this point, even with these increases,” he said.

As of Sunday, more than 119,000 people were on the waiting list, according to the UNOS website.