New figures reveal one in five organ transplants come from drug users

The statistics from NHS Blood and Transplant show the number of organs taken from people with a history of drug use has soared 72 percent in the past two years, rising from 599 in 2016 to 1,032 in 2018. In that time, three drug users donated a total of eight organs for transplant – including kidneys and lungs, heart, pancreas, liver and small bowel. And separate data from the Human Tissue Authority covering the same period recorded at least 19 instances where an unspecified malignancy or infection was passed on via the transplanted organ. Organs are always scanned for known infections such as HIV and hepatitis, but can sometimes carry other hidden diseases.

Medics are aware that organs taken from people with a known history of drug or alcohol abuse can be of a lower quality, but claim “many more patients would die” if those transplants were prevented from going ahead.

A shortage of donors means that almost 10 people die every week while on a waiting list for a transplant.

Professor John Forsythe, medical director for organ donation and transplantation at NHSBT, said: “The best available evidence shows that only a tiny number of donors have a history of the riskiest forms of drug abuse.

“An audit of transplants in the UK over the 10 years until 2013 identified that less than one per cent of donors had a current or past history of intravenous drug use.”

He also told how the definition of “drug user” varies wildly, with the term being used for people who occasionally smoke cannabis as well as those who are hard drug users.

“The numbers can appear higher because of the way we record data,” Prof Forsythe explained.

“If a donor’s family or medical records indicate any past history of drug use whatsoever, organ donations nurses tick a box for ‘drug use’.

“If a family member knows the relative smoked some cannabis many years ago as a teenager, that box is ticked.

“The figure of a 72 percent increase in donors with a reported history of drugs fails to acknowledge the rise in organ donors between 2016 and 2018.

“Our figures show that in 2016, around 12 percent of donors had a reported history of drug use compared with 18 percent in 2018.”

Prof Forsythe continued: “Around 400 people a year die waiting for a transplant. “If a policy of not using organs from anyone who had ever used drugs in any form was adopted, many more patients would die.”

In 2014, the quality of organ donation was brought into focus after the deaths of two men given kidneys carrying a meningitis-causing worm.

Robert Stuart, 67, and Darren Hughes, 42, died from the same parasitic infection that killed the donor two weeks after their transplants at Cardiff’s University Hospital OFWALEs.

An inquest into their deaths heard that the donor, a 39-year-old rough sleeper, had a history of alcohol use of 240 units a week.

Surgeons at six other transplant centres had refused the organs because of “poor function”.

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