One organ sold every hour in illegal trade

Investigators from the World Health Organisation have uncovered a huge black market in human organs. Most are kidneys, sold to criminals by poor and desperate people in the developing world.

How much would you charge for one of your kidneys? For Aliaksei Yafimau, a 30-year-old TV engineer from Belarus, the answer was just £6,000. The money, he thought, would be a first step out of poverty and towards a better life.

In return, he had to give up one of his internal organs. All humans have two working kidneys – small bean-shaped organs in the lower back that scrub waste out of the bloodstream so that it can be excreted through the urinary tract. Yafimau thought he could get by on just one.

When conducted in hospital, by trained surgeons, kidney donation is a very safe operation. Almost all donors survive perfectly well on a single kidney.

But Yafimau’s operation was performed not by doctors but by criminals. He was flown to Ecuador and locked in a hotel room for a month, under armed guard. When he tried to get out of the deal, his family were threatened. Finally, the organ traders cut him open and pulled out his kidney so that it could be sold to a wealthy woman with advanced kidney failure. She will have paid up to £100,000.

Why would anyone pay so much for an organ? Because, for more than a million people around the world, a new kidney is the difference between life and death. There are around 40,000 people in the UK and half a million in the US suffering from end-stage kidney failure – and numbers are skyrocketing.

These people need kidney transplants to survive – but there are far too few donors to go around. Most people in Britain and the US still refuse to give away their organs after death, sometimes for religious or ethical reasons. And few people would willingly donate a kidney while alive – especially since it is illegal in most countries to pay for organs.

The consequence is that many people turn to the black market. According to newly published research from the World Health Organisation, there are 11,000 illegal organ trades every year – more than one per hour. Doctors may not be able to find a spare kidney, but criminals often can.

Two solutions

This trade in black market organs ruins lives. But how to stop it? Most people say better enforcement is the answer. Poor countries must do more to prevent illegal operations being carried out inside their borders. And rich countries must do more to prevent people buying illegal organs.

There is another possible solution. Some people say selling kidneys should not be banned but legalised. For very poor people, selling a kidney will always be an attractive option. At least if it was legal, they would get proper medical care and a proper financial reward. And, there would be more organs available for transplants.

You Decide

  1. What price, if any, do you think is a fair price for a kidney?
  2. If buying a black market kidney was the only way to save your life, and you had the money, would you do it?

Activities

  1. What do kidneys do? Create an illustrated kidney fact-sheet, from your own research.
  2. In pairs, improvise a conversation between two friends. One wants to sell his or her kidney. The other tries to convince them that it is a very bad idea.

Some People Say...

“I would never give away part of my body, whatever the circumstances.”

What do you think?

Q & A

£6,000 is a lot of money. Why isn’t everyone selling their kidneys?
Mainly because it’s a very very bad idea. An illegal operation is very dangerous, and the long term health effects of losing a kidney without proper care can be unpleasant. People who have traded their kidneys almost always regret their decision in the end. One young man in China sold his kidney for an iPad 2. Now his health is deteriorating – and his iPad 2 has been made obsolete by the iPad 3.
Is there any way of stopping the trade?
It would help if more people were registered organ donors. People with donor cards automatically give permission for their organs to be donated when they die, saving as many as eight lives.

Word Watch

Belarus
Squeezed between Poland, Russia and Ukraine, Belarus is the only dictatorship in Europe, and one of the poorest countries on the continent.
Very safe operation
Although kidney donation is very safe, all operations carry some risk. In this case, the risk of death is around one in three thousand.
Kidney failure
Kidney failure is a growing problem in Western countries. It is often a consequence of diabetes, which is associated with obesity. Patients with kidney failure can be kept alive using a sort of artificial kidney called a dialysis machine, but treatment is slow, painful and not effective in the long term.
Illegal in most countries
One of the very few exceptions, surprisingly, is Iran. As a consequence, kidney transplant waiting lists in the country are much shorter than in the rest of the world. But there are concerns that poverty-stricken donors are being exploited.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.