Hepatitis C-positive Heart Transplants: Safer After All?

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As of July 5, 2018, there are 3,960 people in the United States on the waitlist for a heart transplant. That’s only a fraction of the 114,554 people who need organ transplants. There is a great need for organ donations, and physicians at the University of Washington Medical Center have initiated a protocol to help with that.

The UW heart transplant team, led by Dr. Jason Smith, the associate surgical director of heart transplantation and a cardiac surgeon, plans to transplant hearts from hepatitis C (HCV)-positive donors. HCV is a viral infection that is spread through blood contamination, and it causes liver inflammation that can develop into cirrhosis or liver cancer. However, HCV is treatable in 95 percent of cases in certain conditions with a 12-week oral medication cycle that clears the virus from the body, making HCV patients potential organ donors.

While the need for donor organs has grown exponentially, availability remains stagnant. Opioid crisis victims with HCV are increasingly seen as strong donors. It takes 20 years for HCV to cause serious damage, and most donors are younger and healthier from a cardiovascular standpoint. The proposed transplant protocol is further supported by improvements in HCV treatments and decreases in medication costs.

Currently, UW Medical Center performs 75 heart transplants yearly, but approximately 22 people in the United States die daily waiting on the transplant list.

“The risk of dying from a hepatitis C-positive donor is conceptually much [lower], orders of magnitude lower, than not getting a transplant,” Smith explained. “From an ethical standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to go ahead and do this.”

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Corey Bryant serves as Director of Communications for The Alliance.
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