Doctors urged to debate illegal trade in organs

The sale of human organs for transplant should be debated, the president of the General Medical Council says.

Professor Sir Graeme Catto, a kidney specialist and the dean of the Guy's, King's and St Thomas' medical school at King's College London, was speaking after the council suspended a Coventry GP for six months for encouraging a patient to buy a kidney from India.

Sir Graeme said the desperation of dying patients whose only hope was to obtain an organ, legally or illegally, was driving the trade and could not be ignored. The issue of whether the sale of organs should be allowed came up regularly at scientific meetings, he said. "It is illegal in this country and the vast majority of people find it distasteful but nevertheless it is one way of obtaining more organs and it needs to be discussed.

"Although it is illegal and distasteful it is happening and there are people [in the medical establishment] who are looking to make the best of a bad job. It would be very surprising if there were not. You have got people who are desperate for an organ and people who are willing to sell one, so, distasteful as it is, it would be surprising if there were not people trying to do something about it." He added: "People prefer not to think about it because that is more comfortable. People prefer to hide from the grim reality."

The council's professional conduct committee found Dr Jarnail Singh guilty of serious professional misconduct for encouraging the trade in human organs. Dr Singh was exposed by two undercover reporters posing as patients who said they were seeking a kidney for the father of one of them. The council was told that Dr Singh had agreed in principle to help them and had quoted a cost of £3,000 for the organ. But when offered £5,000 to help to arrange the operation, he refused the money.

It was alleged that he had helped other people in the same position including one of his own patients, Darshan Singh. Mr Singh travelled to India for surgery but died after contracting an infection.

The council's professional conduct committee described Dr Singh's behaviour as "unprofessional and irresponsible" but decided he had not participated in the illegal trade or agreed to act as a facilitator for the transaction.

Professor Robert Dickson, the chairman of the committee, told him: "Your behaviour as described demonstrated encouragement in the trade in human organs from live donors. We find this to be a serious incident of misconduct."

Kidney specialists acknowledge that they are powerless to stop the growing trade in organs, which is driven by the global shortage of donors. In the UK 7,000 people are awaiting kidney transplants but there were only 3,000 operations last year.

There is no support in medical circles for legalising the organ trade as it stands. But some specialists have proposed that the state should buy organs from willing donors, which would then be pooled and offered to patients in order of need. This would protect vulnerable patients and donors from the risks involved in a direct commercial transaction, and boost the supply of organs.

Last month, a survey at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham showed at least 29 NHS patients had travelled overseas for kidney transplants, against medical advice. In more than half the cases the kidney failed, and one third of the patients died.