Global Trade in Body Parts Escalates

August 27, 2012

MENTION organ transplants and almost everybody knows what it means. It’s the process of having someone else’s body part replace the diseased body part of another person. Despite the awareness of ethical aspects of organ transplantation, the subject is still of concern as unethical practices such as illegal trade of body parts are increasing.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 10% of transactions involving transplants are done on the black market. Latest estimates show that organ traffickers are exploiting people, especially from under-developed countries such as China, India and Pakistan, to cater to the rising demand. Although patients know about the implications and risks involved, they still carry on in hope of a new lease of life. Sad to say, in most cases, things do not turn out as the recipients had hoped for. This is best exemplified by Australian patients who had gone overseas despite warnings from their doctors and died after receiving such illegal transplants.

For donors and receivers, such news serves not as a deterrent as the one thing that they have in common is desperation. In the case of donors, financial desperation is the main contributor to the reason why they donate organs. As for receivers, the wish for a better quality and extended life span is the cause of their desperation.
Professor Jeremy Chapman, past President of the Transplantation Society, says that much of the demand comes from citizens in developed countries. “They go overseas where the only criterion for suitability is the size of your cheque book,” explains Professor Chapman.

Selling a kidney for a smartphone?

For some, it’s the temptation of the material world that leads them to a life of regret. This predicament is best showcased in the case of a 17-year old Chinese boy who sold one of his kidneys so that he could buy an iPhone and iPad! According to Chinese state media, five people have been arrested in connection with the case in Hunan province. The surgeon who removed the boy’s kidney last April was also detained. Identified only by his surname Wang, the teenager is said to have received US$3,000.

The boy was found out when his mother discovered his gadgets. He admitted selling a kidney when asked where he had obtained the money. Apple IPhone and iPads are very popular in China but are priced beyond the reach of many urban workers. The teenager was reportedly lured through an online chat room and is said now to be suffering from renal failure, according to the province’s prosecutors. Around US$35,000 was received by the group that conducted the transplant.

The lucrative money involved in trading of body parts is another lure in the trade. But China is cracking down on this. In a statement released by the Ministry of Public Security on August 4, Chinese police have arrested 137 people in connection with illegal trading of organ donors. Also rescued were 127 prospective organ donors. Official figures from the Health Ministry show that 1.5 million people are in need of transplants but only 10,000 are performed annually.

To reduce the huge gap, the Chinese government has repeatedly pledged to improve its regulations on organ transplants and facilitate organ donations through the setting up of an official network. Also, China has vowed to phase out over the next five years the sourcing of organs from executed prisoners.

In need of money

On a more classic take, the usual tale of money woes due to debts holds prevalence. According to the German daily Spiegel, Vera Schewdko is an immigrant from Russia who dreamt of a better future for herself in Israel. Walter (last name not mentioned for obvious reason) is a German businessman who needed a new kidney.

Somehow Vera’s dream of a new home turned into a nightmare when she became saddled with debts. Walter, meanwhile, was put on a long waiting list as a kidney transplant recipient. With debts mounting and deteriorating health, Vera and Walter somehow crossed paths.

To Walter ironically, it was a documentary on illegal organ transplants that prompted his family to pursue this path. With only a few months to live, his family viewed the villains as saviours. Walter flew to Istanbul to meet with one of the mediators. From there he got on a plane to Kosovo.

At a bus station in Tel Aviv, she chanced upon a free Russian-language newspaper with an announcement for the purchase of organs for transplants. When Vera called the advertiser, the person on the other side promised to pay her US$10,000 in cash.

Vera Schewsdko was on the same plane to Kosovo as Walter. From the airport, they headed to the outskirts of Pristina where the clinic was located. It was there where the transplant was done. It has been three years since Walter underwent the surgery. Today, Vera is a shadow of herself. Although in pale health, she has managed to pay off her debts and bring her daughter over.

Is there a solution in sight?
In the international world of organ trafficking, Kosovo is considered the “capital”. Its beginnings can be traced back to the time when it was known as Yugoslavia and in conflict. With organs taken from killed Serbs for wealthy paying patients, it was the birth of an illegal and illicit trade.

This situation has exposed weaknesses leading to the illicit capitalisation of organ harvesting or organ tourism, as it is known in some places. Initially, it was thought that transplants would bring an end to diseased and early malfunctioning of vital organs such as the heart. However, problems such as organ rejection, shortage of organs and the cost of transplant surgeries have forced researchers to seek new and innovative solutions to these problems.

Advancements such as battery-driven artificial hearts as well as developments in stem science and DNA technology have made it possible for life extension and enhancement of the quality of life. Also a new science holds promises for transplant patients. Known as “tissue engineering”, it enables the creation of biological material in the laboratory for transplanting into the human body. Indications show that it is possible in the 2 1st century to rebuild almost the entire human body artificially.

This is indeed good news and emphasis and effort should be on the facilitation of good health.

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