In this age of instant, mass communication, it’s hard to cover up virtually anything, and yet there’s one story that has yet to be told on a wide scale – how organ trafficking has ballooned into a global business and that the practice is so widespread, one organ is sold every hour.
That’s according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which said recently in a report that there are new fears the illegal organ trade may once again be rising.
Here’s the way the process is supposed to work, at least in the U.S.:
According to the OrganDonor.gov Web site, which is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the first part is for people to actually enroll as donors, and this generally happens on the state level. «Most often this happens when obtaining or renewing a driver’s license or by going on-line for those state registries that have an Internet registration capacity,» the site says.
At some point the donor is admitted to a hospital; most donors are victims of severe head trauma. When donors are thought to be near death and all lifesaving techniques have been exhausted and the donor/patient is still not responding, «a physician will perform a series of tests, usually on multiple occasions, to determine if brain death has occurred,» says the HHS site. That test is usually performed by a neurosurgeon who must follow both state law and accepted medical practice.
Regulated and safe – as long as you’re working within the system
Then, the hospital – in compliance with federal regulations – notifies a local organ procurement organization (OPO), giving the OPO information about the deceased to confirm his or her potential to be a donor. «If the patient is a potential candidate for donation, an OPO representative immediately travels to the hospital,» HHS says.
Next, the OPO searches the state’s donor database to see if the deceased signed up to become a donor and if so, that will serve as consent. If the deceased had not signed up as a donor the OPO will contact the next-of-kin to obtain consent. «When consent is obtained, medical evaluation will continue, including obtaining the deceased’s complete medical and social history from the family,» said HHS.
After more testing does not rule out the deceased as a donor, then the search begins for a recipient or, in many cases, recipients. This is done on a national level through the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. When donors are found, the organs are transported to them, and surgeons transplant them.
Now, contrast that regulated, organized process with the illicit global organ trade, which has virtually no such protections and you can begin to see the health implications of operating outside the system.
Yet, many still do. According to WHO, an estimated 10,000 organs a year are not handled in that way; in fact, the organization says the rise in illicit organ trading comes on the back of a soaring rise in black-market kidney transplants.
Kidneys are in high demand
WHO says wealthy patients in developed nations are paying tens of thousands of dollars for a kidney to India-, China- and Pakistan-based gangs, who harvest them from desperate people for as little as a few hundred dollars.
Eastern Europe, the U.N.-based health organization says, is becoming fertile ground for black-market organs; recently the Salvation Army said it rescued a woman who had been brought to the United Kingdom to have her organs harvested.
The illicit kidney trade makes up 75 percent of the black-market organ trade, WHO says; experts say that is likely due to the diseases of affluence such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems.
And, since there is such disparity between wealthy and poor countries, there isn’t much chance the illicit trade will end anytime soon.
«The stakes are so big, the profit that can be made so huge, that the temptation is out there,» Dr. Luc Noel, an official with WHO, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
The processes for the orderly transplantation of organs are methodical and regulated for a reason: to ensure the health of the organs themselves and the patients who receive them. But the black market trade completely bypasses those protections.
WHO officials say they don’t know how many of the more than 106,000 known organ transplants last year took place using black-market organs, but Noel thinks that figure could be as high as 10 percent.
Illegal organ trafficking has come to the U.S. as well
The United States, with its stringent organ transplant regulations, has not been completely immune from the vile business of illegal organ trafficking.
A New Jersey corruption probe in 2009 found that Levy Izhak Rosenbaum of Brooklyn «brokered the sale of black-market kidneys, buying organs from vulnerable people from Israel for $10,000 and selling them to desperate patients in the U.S. for as much as $160,000,» the Associated Press reported.
«I am what you call a matchmaker,» Rosenbaum said during a conversation that was being secretly taped by authorities. When asked how many organs he had trafficked, he answered, «Quite a lot.»
While trafficking is on the rise, so too is the condemnation of it.
«The people who gain are the rich transplant patients who can afford to buy a kidney, the doctors and hospital administrators, and the middlemen, the traffickers,» said Jim Feehally, professor of renal medicine at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, who said the key issue was one of exploitation.
Sources for this article include: