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Illegal Organ Trafficking Poses A Global Problem

Huffington Post   First Posted: 08/24/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:45 PM ET

Gaza Broken Care

The recent New Jersey corruption probe, which resulted in the arrest of 44 people including state legislators, government officials and several rabbis for running an international money laundering racket that trafficked human organs, has brought Israel into the spotlight for organ transplants. Despite some growing awareness, the international organ trade industry is not well understood due to lack of information and the widespread nature of the problem.

According to theWorld Health Organization (WHO), the search for organs has intensified around the world because of an increase in kidney diseases and not enough available kidneys. Only 10 percent of the estimated need was met in 2005. As a result, the illegal kidney trade has increased tremendously over the past couple of years with the extent of illegal kidney transplants unknown even to the WHO.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, founding director of Organs Watch, an academic research project that deals with organ transplants at the University of California, Berkeley, has said that a conservative estimate would put the number of trafficked kidneys at 15,000 each year.

Outside of Israel, Egypt, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, India and Iraq are some of the biggest players in the game. Organ trafficking is illegal in all these countries. The seller generally earns between $2,000 to $6,000 for a kidney, though post operation care is almost never taken into account. Unaware of all the risks involved, the donors often find themselves even worse off than before the operation, and with little or no money left to help them live.

Poverty and corruption are underlying themes behind sellers giving up their organs as most donors see it as the only option to make money. For most buyers, who have been waiting on transplant lists for months, desperate need and frustration push them to commit the illegal act. Often, they are told that the men and women they are buying the kidneys from are perfectly healthy and in good shape.

In some parts of India, poor people use their kidneys as collateral for money lenders. Lawrence Cohen, UC Berkeley professor of anthropology, has documented that the kidneys in the region are often sold to the wealthy in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Gulf states, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Cohen, in a press release published by U.C. Berkeley states that while most people sold their kidneys to get out of debt, they were back in debt very shortly.

Most sellers would say, 'I'd do it again. I have a family to support. What choice did I have?'" said Cohen.


In some neighborhoods, the structure of debt appeared to rest on kidney selling, since lenders would advance money knowing the organs were collateral.

But I argue that the money from kidneys didn't really get these families out of debt. Moreover, there was no follow-up care after the operation, nor efforts to prevent infection in the donor.

Nor was there a clear benefit for the recipient, due to the high cost of being maintained on cyclosporine, a drug that suppresses immune reactions to transplants. People were not informed about the cost of the maintenance drugs, and middle class recipients could find themselves deeply in debt after the operation, said Cohen.

In places like Egypt, which the WHO has declared as a organ-trafficking hot spot, this ABC report tells of a similar problem:

For years, word has spread among Egypt's destitute that selling a kidney -- sometimes for as little as $2,000 -- can be a quick way out of a debt or to keep from sinking deeper into poverty. At rundown cafes, they are hunted by middlemen working for labs that match donors and recipients, many of whom are foreigners drawn to Egypt's thriving, underground organ trade.

In Brazil the situation is more complicated than a simple give and take performed for large sums of money, according to Scheper-Hughes in an interview with threemonkeysonline.com.

Softer forms of sale that raised serious questions about the exploitation of people in subordinate work positions. Exchanges were taking place between employers and employees or wealthy people and their domestic workers in which the lower status individuals "donated" their kidneys in return for secure employment, housing or other basic needs. Scheper-Hughes also is investigating the allegations of two women in Sao Paulo who woke up from gynecological surgery without a kidney.

She also found widespread abuse of the cadavers of poor people, involving eyes, pineal glands and heart valves in Brazil and South Africa.

In Iraq, where unemployment is at least 18 percent, people sell their organs to survive much like in the rest of the organ trade hot spots.

According to an Al Jazeera report:

The capital Baghdad is somewhat of a central hub for the trade, with hundreds of people estimated to have sold organs such as their kidneys to dealers who then sell them for massive profits to desperately ill people willing to pay.

Iran, on the other hand, is the only country where the practice of selling one's kidney for profit is legal. The Charity Association for the Support of Kidney Patients (CASKP) and the Charity Foundation for Special Diseases (CFSD) control the trade of organs with the support of the government, and the country has no wait lists for kidney transplantation.

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