EU demands action as crime gangs milk trade in kidneys for transplant

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The Independent Online

The illegal trafficking of human organs is "an attack on human dignity" which must be stopped, the Council of Europe has said.

A parliamentary assembly of the council called for a common European strategy to fight international crime syndicates cashing in on the shortage of kidneys available for transplant in Europe. The groups often target impoverished eastern European countries such as Ukraine and Moldova, according to a report by the council.

Demand for kidneys is soaring in all Western countries as more patients are suffering kidney failure and the supply of organs is falling. The report says that 40,000 patients are waiting for a transplant in western Europe, and 15 to 30 per cent will die on the waiting list.

The average wait for a transplant is three years, and by 2010 it is expected to have increased to 10 years. Desperate patients are prepared to spend tens of thousands of pounds and take whatever risks are necessary to save their lives.

The going price paid to young people in eastern Europe for one of their kidneys is $2,500 to $3,000 (£1,500 to £1,800), the report says. Patients receiving the kidneys are reported to have paid between $100,000 and $200,000 for a transplant.

In Britain, kidney patients are known to have travelled abroad, mainly to India, to buy organs. A survey conducted at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, published last year, revealed that 29 NHS patients had bought kidneys which were transplanted abroad. In more than half the cases the kidney failed, and a third of the patients died.

Trafficking networks are targeting poor European countries. Moldova, Europe's poorest country, with an average monthly salary under $50, is a prime target.

The report describes the case of Lurie Sobetchi, aged 21, from Moldova, who was persuaded to sell one of his kidneys for $7,000. He was taken to a hospital in Turkey, where the transplant was carried out in February 2002. His kidney was sold to a Russian living in Israel.

After the operation Mr Sobetchi reported the men who he said organised the transplant, a doctor at a hospital in Moldova and an alleged accomplice. Both were arrested.

Living donors are being increasingly used for kidney transplants worldwide as the results are better for the recipients and donors can lead normal lives with one kidney, if they have good medical care.

But the report says: "It is a matter of grave concern that following the illegal transplant, the donor's state of health generally worsens in the medium term, due to the absence of any medical follow-up, hard physical work and an unhealthy lifestyle connected to inadequate nutrition and high consumption of alcohol."

In the UK, transplant surgeons have called for a debate on paid donation as a way of increasing the supply of organs. Although paid donation is widely regarded as unethical, a small but growing number of surgeons say the sale of organs should be made legal to improve the supply and to safeguard those involved, given the desperation of patients and the readiness of donors to sell their organs on the black market.

John Dark, a transplant surgeon at the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, said it was difficult to draw a moral difference between the physical harm inflicted on someone paid for a kidney or paid to work in a Third World sweat shop.

"The real problem is that [paying for a kidney] involves inflicting harm on someone for financial gain. We have no problem with inflicting harm on people for altruistic reasons ­ for example by taking their blood. But there are also lots of examples of inflicting harm on people for payment ­ like requiring them to work down coal mines. A man trying to support his family by selling a kidney is no different to putting in shifts down a diamond mine. Society has moved on from where paying for harm was unthinkable. We do it every day when we buy a pair of trainers."

But Mr Dark said allowing the trade would "open up a can of worms" that could be avoided by boosting the supply of organs in other ways.

HOW ONE 'BLOOD DONOR' WAS TARGETED

Four years ago, Sergei was lured from his home in Moldova to Turkey with the promise of a job.

When it failed to materialise the woman who had made the promise told him he would have to sell his blood to raise the bus fare home.

Having no other option, Sergei made his way to a private hospital she directed him to, on the outskirts of Istanbul. There, he said, he had a jab in the arm which put him to sleep.

Hours later he woke. "My whole body was aching," he said. "I couldn't get up. I had a feeling that something was missing inside me." As the anaesthetic wore off, he was visited by the woman.

She told him bluntly: "We have taken a kidney. There is nothing you can do. I will give you £1,800 for it. Otherwise, you can get yourself out of your predicament on your own."

Sergei took the money and returned to Moldova. "Six months later, all I had left to remind me was a stamp in my passport and a pain in my left side," he told a reporting team from the BBC's Newsnight programme.

Moldova has become a prime target for human organ traffickers because of the widespread poverty and lack of prospects in the country. Most sell their organs willingly but there is no lack of volunteers. A person's body parts may be the only items of value that they possess.

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