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Organ Transplants Hit an All-Time High in 2017. But It’s a Bittersweet Win

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Last year, organs were recovered from 10,281 deceased donors—more than a 3% increase from 2016 and a 27% increase over the last 10 years.

Those organs contributed to the 34,768 transplants performed in 2017 using organs from both deceased and living donors—a new record for organ transplants in the United States. The reasons why are both hopeful and concerning.

The new data comes from the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a non-profit organization that manages the United States’s organ transplant system through a contract with the federal government. The number of transplant performed in 2017 marks the fifth consecutive record-setting year for transplants.

“The number of transplants is directly related to the number of donors,” says Dr. David Klassen, the chief medical officer of UNOS. “I think who can be a donor has really evolved over the years. The transplant community as a whole has done a really good job looking beyond the usual places of who can be a donor.”

Researchers are now finding ways to recover and use organs that would normally be discarded. At Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, there are ongoing clinical trials where people are given organs from donors who are infected with hepatitis C. After the transplant, recipients take a drug that will clear them of the disease. So far, the trial is having positive results.

UNOS also reported that there were a record number of organs recovered for the four most common transplants: kidney, liver, heart and lung transplants.

Another reason for the increase is the rise in drug overdose deaths across the U.S. “These can become organ donors quite successfully,” says Klassen. “Those that are dying from overdose tend to be otherwise fairly healthy and younger. I think it turns an in awful situation into some good.”

UNOS also saw increases in recovered organs from people age 50 and older and organs from donors after circulatory death (the irreversible loss of function of the heart and lungs).

Despite the record number of transplants, the number of people on the organ donation waiting list still far exceeds the number of suitable donors. Currently, more than 115,398 people are waiting for a transplant; UNOS estimates that every ten minutes, someone new is added.

Still, Klassen also notes that most Americans are now registered as organ donors. “There is generally broad support in the U.S. for the concept of organ donation and transplantation,” he says. “It’s a voluntary system, which I think speaks to the generosity of society as a whole. We want to maintain that.”

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