The grim reason there are more livers for transplants: Opioid deaths

The number of livers available for transplant remained high during the pandemic, even as surgeries were postponed.

Chris Arnold 3 minute read May 26, 2022
Old woman in bed

As much as 70 per cent of all overdose-related deaths in the US are linked to opioids, the researchers say. GETTY

The number of livers available for transplant from donors who overdosed has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Researchers from St. George’s University in Grenada found that despite the international shutdown that impacted most of the world, the number of overall liver transplants in the US remained relatively stable. The scientists shared their findings as part of Digestive Disease Week 2022 in San Diego. 

“When the pandemic began, we saw no decline in liver transplants, which seemed surprising since many surgeries were canceled or postponed,” Peter Lymberopoulos, lead author of the study said. “Sadly, a key reason seems to be a surge of organ donors who died from drug overdose.” 

In Canada, there was a 95 per cent increase in apparent opioid toxicity deaths in the first year of the pandemic, according to the federal government, totalling 7,224 people. Factors including the increased toxic drug supply, feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety, and changes in the availability of services for drug users could have contributed to the increase in overdoses. 

Researchers used the United States Organ Donation Registry, part of the United Network for Organ Sharing, to examine characteristics of donors for transplants during two periods: the 14 months prior to the pandemic, and the first 14 months of the pandemic. 

“Among liver transplants, we found that the number of overdose donors rose at a surprising rate in the pandemic’s first 14 months, compared to the previous 14 months,” Lymberopoulos said. “Organ transplants are experiencing success, but it often comes at a cost. In many cases, that cost is primarily young males dying prematurely from overdoses.” 

The percentage of livers from donors who had overdosed increased in the US from 15.1 per cent to 18.3 per cent. However, the study excluded March and April 2020, as many hospitals were experience significant disruptions at the time. The study also did not look into why more livers from overdose related deaths were available, but researchers speculated that pandemic-related socioeconomic stresses were a key in overdose deaths.

As much as 70 per cent of all overdose-related deaths in the US are linked to opioids, the researchers say. 

The team of researchers plan to expand the study and to examine the second year of the pandemic.

Kidney transplants are still the most common

Approximately 90 per cent of Canadians say they support organ donation transplants, but only 32 per cent are registered organ donors, according to Canadian Blood Services. Roughly 4,400 Canadians need an organ transplant each year, but hundreds of those people never receive what they need. 

The most common organ to be transplanted each year is the kidney, with 1,789 being put into new bodies in 2019, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Kidneys made up approximately 58 per cent of all organ transplants that year. There were an additional 610 livers, 212 hearts, 404 lungs, and 68 pancreases transplanted in 2019.

Roughly 76 per cent of people waiting for an organ transplant require a kidney, significantly outweighing the need for livers at 12 per cent.

Chris Arnold is a Toronto-based writer.
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