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Study: Traffic fatalities at large biker rallies boost organ donations, transplants

Traumatic deaths from motor vehicle crashes increase where large U.S. motorcycle rallies are held -- and a Harvard-led study suggests a corresponding, dramatic boost in organ donations and transplants. File Photo by Michael Kleinfeld/UPI
Traumatic deaths from motor vehicle crashes increase where large U.S. motorcycle rallies are held -- and a Harvard-led study suggests a corresponding, dramatic boost in organ donations and transplants. File Photo by Michael Kleinfeld/UPI | License Photo

Nov. 28 (UPI) -- Traumatic deaths from motor vehicle crashes increase where large U.S. motorcycle rallies are held, and a Harvard-led study suggests a corresponding, dramatic boost in the number of organ donations and transplants at that time.

The original investigation, also involving researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, found that in the regions in which the seven largest U.S. biker rallies were held between 2005 and 2021, 21% more organ donors per day occurred, on average during these events, compared with days just before and after the rallies.

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Researchers also found and 26% more transplant recipients per day, on average, during the events.

Such rallies are generally large, crowded affairs held in rural areas or small towns with traffic infrastructure intended for much smaller populations and far less traffic, the researchers noted.

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The findings were published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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According to the researchers, a common source of deceased donor organs is traumatic injury from motor vehicle accidents, which accounted for 11% of all organ donors in 2021.

And motorcyclists -- especially those not wearing helmets -- are disproportionately more likely to die in a crash compared with passenger vehicle motorists.

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"The spikes in organ donations and transplantations that we found in our analysis are disturbing, even if not entirely surprising, because they signal a systemic failure to avoid preventable deaths, which is a tragedy," said Dr. David Cron, the study's primary author, said in a news release.

While there is a clear need for better safety protocols around such events, said Corn, a Harvard Medical School clinical fellow in surgery at Massachusetts General, a need also exists for transplant communities in places that host these events to be aware of the potential for increased organ donors.

Cron also is a research fellow at the Center for Surgery and Public Health at Brigham and Women's Hospital, exploring how factors inside and outside of the healthcare system affect efforts to improve the supply of organs for transplantation.

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In an accompanying editorial urging "safety while practicing high-risk activities" and encouraging more education for people on how to opt in to organ donation, the authors noted that Corn's study found the average number of organs retrived was about three per donor.

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"One donor has the potential to save up to eight lives, depending on how their organs are allocated (two kidneys, two pieces of the liver, two lungs, a pancreas and a heart). If organs from one donor are distributed to six different recipients, one death is able to provide 55.8 additional life-years for organ recipients," said the editorial's co-authors, Dr. Grace Yuan Zhang and Dr. Mitchell H. Katz.

And tissue donation can improve the lives of many persons affected by traumatic burns and injuries, they added.

For the study, the investigators used data from the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients on deceased organ donors ages 16 years and older who were involved in a motor vehicle crash and recipients of organs from those donors from March 2005 to September 2021 to estimate changes in the incidence of donation and transplants in regions that hosted motorcycle rallies.

Researchers analyzed records from 10,798 organ donors and 35,329 organ recipients in the regions where the featured motorcycle rallies take place.

During the days on which rallies were held, 406 organ donors and 1,400 transplant recipients in regions near the events were recorded. During the four weeks before and after the rallies, 2,332 organ donors and 7,714 transplant recipients were recorded in those locations.

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According to the researchers, the seven motorcycle rallies in the study each attract 200,000-plus visitors over the course of several days. Daytona Bike Week in Florida and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota are 10-day events that each draw 500,000 visitors.

The research paper is the latest in a series by senior author Dr. Anupam Jena, the Joseph P. Newhouse Professor of Health Care Policy in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School.

Jena, who explores often-unanticipated impacts on the health system of large-scale public events.

In his previous work, he found that people who have heart attacks or cardiac arrests in the vicinity where a major marathon is being held are more likely to die within a month due to delays in transportation to nearby hospitals.

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