Dutch kidney donor show 'a hoax to highlight shortage of organs'

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A Dutch reality television show in which a terminally ill woman had to donate a kidney to one of three contestants was a hoax, its makers said last night.

The Big Donor Show, made by the company behind Big Brother, said the programme had been a stunt to raise awareness of organ donor shortages.

The show had provoked calls in the Dutch parliament for it to be banned, a move declined by the cabinet on the grounds that it would amount to censorship. It had also been condemned by the Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.

But last night, as the supposed donor heard interviews with the three candidates, their families and friends and was due to make a decision, the producers, Endemol, revealed the hoax.

The donor, who had been described as a 37-year-old Dutch woman with a brain tumour called Lisa, was in fact an actress.

The three contestants, aged between 18 and 40, all with degenerative kidney illnesses, were aware of the hoax.

A spokesman for Endemol said: "The Big Donor Show was a hoax. The contestants were also part of the deception, although all three are genuine kidney patients. Their life is bitter reality ... we hope this will focus on the donor crisis. "

He said the exercise was intended to pressure the government into reforming its organ donation laws.

The Dutch Education Minister Ronald Plasterk said the show was a "fantastic stunt" and an intelligent way to draw attention to the shortage of donor organs.

However, UK Transplant, the NHS special authority that maintains the organ donation register and is responsible for the matching and allocation of donated organs, said: "Donation and transplantation is a serious issue and we encourage campaigners to promote it in a responsible and sensitive manner."

When details of the programme emerged this week, the format was attacked by politicians and doctors. The Dutch doctors' association asked its members not to take part, saying it was tasteless and unethical.

The Royal Netherlands Medical Association said it "appreciates that BNN [the Dutch broadcaster] wants to draw attention to the shortage of organs, but finds this manner of doing so tasteless and unhelpful". It urged its members not to participate and had questioned whether the programme might just be a publicity stunt.

Around 200 people die annually in the Netherlands while waiting for a kidney. In the UK there are more than 6,500 people waiting for a kidney transplant, while 18,000 people need regular dialysis, according to the Department of Health.