David Blackshear was born with only one kidney. But the 70-year-old Arizona man didn't seriously worry about it until this summer, when it began to fail.
His doctors told him he had a choice.
He could start dialysis, and wait up to five years for an organ transplant. Or he could take a shortcut: He could accept a donor kidney infected with hepatitis C.
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"I was not too thrilled about the dialysis," said Blackshear, of Surprise, Arizona. He feared his quality of life would be limited by frequent trips to a center to be hooked up to a blood-cleansing machine for hours at a time.
He agreed to take the infected kidney: "I had no other alternative."
It cut the wait from five years to two weeks. Blackshear received his transplant at Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix in July. This month, he'll begin taking antiviral drugs to rid his body of signs of the virus.
Hospitals have long discarded organs donated by patients who were infected with hepatitis C. But with a new class of direct-acting antiviral drugs that can cure the infection – and an opioid crisis that's produced thousands of potential donors with the virus – doctors at several of the nation's most prestigious hospitals are transplanting infected organs into people who don't already have the virus.
People who get the infected organs must take an expensive drug over 8 to 12 weeks to remove signs of the virus from their blood. But a trio of recent, small studies suggest that the operation is usually successful.
Recipients must give consent to take an organ infected with a potentially deadly virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that hepatitis C caused or contributed to more than 18,000 deaths in 2016.