New rules governing organ transplants are being drawn up amid concern about money changing hands illegally as patients make direct pleas to potential donors on social networking sites.
The transplant watchdog, the Human Tissue Authority (HTA), today said that it had seen an increase in people seeking strangers online to donate kidneys and livers and was publishing new guidelines next month to keep pace with developments.
The HTA said that it was examining the legality of a US donor matching website that launched its British version today which allows people seeking organs to speak directly with potential living donors. Under the NHS transplant scheme, altruistic living donors are not told who receives their kidney and a medical panel decides who needs it the most.
It is not illegal to specify who should receive a donated organ but the donor cannot receive any payment or reward. Both parties face physical and psychological reviews before any treatment can go ahead. The procedure is not without risk: there is a one in 3,000 chance of death to the donator of a kidney, which can rise to one in 200 for anyone donating part of a liver.
The sensitivity and potential profitability of organ donation was highlighted in an assessment by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) which earlier this month said that it had identified three cases of trafficking for the purposes of organ harvesting.
Soca said that each of the cases was discovered before any organs were removed “due to standard border and medical checking processes”. It declined to give further details.
Paul Dooley, the chief executive of Matching Donors, said that his non-profit organisation had security checks which had weeded out potential donors from Cameroon, China and India who were seeking to sell their organs through the website for thousands of dollars. It said that all of its potential donors were from North America.
Briton Saira Khan, the first woman to sign up to the UK version of the website, today said that she had previously secured a US donor through another website, but the transplant had been halted on medical grounds.
Mrs Khan, 39, from Wimbledon, southwest London, said that one London hospital had declined to carry out the operation, but a second had agreed in the event of a suitable donor being found.
In her message online, Mrs Khan appealed for help saying that her kidney had been damaged by disease and she needed to look after three young children.
“Everything is happening on the internet,” she told The Independent. “Why not do it this way? There are egg donors, sperm donors and you can get married to whoever you want to online.”
She added: “Unless they are convinced, the hospital isn’t going to do it.”
Allan Marriott-Smith, director of strategy and quality at the HTA, said that its review of the Matching Donors website showed that it charged up to $595 for organ recipients to register. “The HTA’s independent check is in place to reassure everyone that no reward has been or will be given for the donation; and the donor has given consent to the removal of their organ,” he said. Mr Dooley said that everyone working on the website was a volunteer and it made virtually no money.
The HTA said it had assessed 1,200 cases of living donates in 2011/12, with more than 90 percent of them involving family and close friends.