Organs from donors who died of drug overdoses helped keep the number of U.S. liver transplants steady during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study finds.
"When the pandemic began, we saw no decline in liver transplants, which seemed surprising since many surgeries were canceled or postponed," said lead author Peter Lymberopoulos, a fourth-year medical student at St. George's University in Grenada.
"Sadly, a key reason seems to be a surge of organ donors who died from drug overdose," he said in an American Gastroenterological Association news release.
Drug overdoses represent a public health crisis in the United States. Last year, more than 107,600 Americans died from drug overdoses, a record number, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said recently.
The researchers used the U.S. organ donation registry of the United Network for Organ Sharing for the study. They analyzed data on donors of all solid organ transplants, including livers, during the 14 months before the start of the COVID pandemic (Jan. 1, 2019 to Feb. 29, 2020) and the 14 months after it began (May 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021).
"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," he said.
The percentage of livers from donors who died of overdoses rose by 26% -- from about 15% to just over 18% -- from the pre-COVID period to the COVID period. The use of drug overdose donors for all solid organ transplants increased by almost a third, from about 14% to a little over 17%.
Transplants that occurred in March and April 2020 were excluded from the study due to COVID-related disruptions at hospitals in those months.
The study authors plan to investigate whether the trend continued into the second year of the pandemic.
Lymberopoulos presented the findings Sunday at the American Gastroenterological Association's Digestive Disease Week meeting, in San Diego. Research presented at meetings is usually considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
Many overdose victims are young and have few or no other health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, which would affect the chances of transplant success.
There's more on liver transplants at the American Liver Foundation.
SOURCE: American Gastroenterological Association, news release, May 22, 2022