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Last Updated: Monday, 10 December 2007, 10:26 GMT
Drug addicts used as organ donors
Donor card
There is debate as to whether to overhaul the current donor system
A serious shortage of organs means transplant surgeons are being forced to use body parts from drug addicts.

Between 2002 and 2007 some 450 organs came from donors with a history of drug abuse, which may affect the quality of the organ and raise infection risks.

The lack of viable organs is due in part to the fact that fewer healthy people are dying in car accidents, when organs can often be retrieved intact.

There is currently debate on whether to overhaul the system of organ donation.

The government is examining a proposal that everyone should be put on the organ donor register, unless they specifically "opt out".

There are more than 8,000 people in the UK who need an organ donation but only 3,000 transplants are carried out each year. It is estimated that one person dies each day waiting for an organ.

Infection risk

According to UK Transplant, the body in charge of transplants, over the same period 10 hearts were also taken from people with a history of heart disease or who had suffered a heart attack.

Meanwhile, in fourteen of the cases of organs being taken from addicts, the donor had died of a drug overdose. In one case, a liver was taken from someone who had died of a paracetamol overdose.

ADDICT DONORS 2002 - 2007
146 donors with history of drug abuse
450 organs donated
212 kidneys
126 livers
39 hearts

Around three percent of the donations carried out between April 2002 and 2007 were from drug addicts, including those using prescription, over the counter, and illegal substances.

Although this may be only a small proportion of the 14,261 organs used in that period, surgeons agree that the standard of donations has dropped in the last decade, with organs more likely to come from older, sicker donors than younger, healthier people.

While procedures can be carried out to improve the quality of sub-standard organs, it is not seen as ideal.

In addition, while all organs are screened for diseases such as hepatitis or HIV, there is still a risk of passing on an infection which is yet to show up on tests.

This danger is particularly pronounced when the donors are intravenous drug addicts, who are more likely to be carrying hepatitis or HIV.

However a spokesman for UK Transplant stressed that while the use of less-than-perfect organs highlighted the shortage, surgeons would not put patients through the ordeal of a transplantation for an organ that was unlikely to offer substantial benefits.

He also noted that the drug abuse could be firmly in the donor's past, potentially relating to an addiction as long as 20 years ago.

The transplantation heartache
03 Dec 07 |  Cambridgeshire

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