Organ Shortage Fuels Illicit Trade in Human Parts

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic Ultimate Explorer
January 16, 2004

In 2002 U.S. doctors performed 24,900 lifesaving organ transplants. That's the good news. But for every person lucky enough to receive a transplant, two others are added to a waiting list that now features more than 80,000 people in the U.S. alone. As desperation grows, so may an illicit trade in human organs in much of the developing world.

"In the United States, a new person is added to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) list every 14 minutes," UNOS spokesperson Anne Paschke told National Geographic News. The Richmond, Virginia-based organization administers the nation's Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), established by the U.S. Congress in 1984.

In 2002 over 6,000 Americans died while waiting for organs, according to UNOS data.

What would it be worth to somehow move to the top of the list? Perhaps no cost would be too high, but organs are not generally offered for sale—at least not legally.

In most of the world, laws specifically ban the sale of organs. U.S. law, for example, prohibits any "valuable consideration" resulting from an organ donation.

But with demand so high, many have attempted to profit by selling organs such as kidneys, obtained from living donors tempted to give up their "spare" organs for cash.

Last month (December 2003), police in South Africa and in Brazil broke up an international ring trafficking in human kidneys. The racket also involved people in Israel—and possibly even further afield.

Brazilian police reported that dozens of willing donors were flown from that nation's destitute neighborhoods to South Africa where transplant surgery was performed on patients, including some from Israel. Recipients may have paid as much as U.S. $100,000 for their ill-gotten organs. Donors received a fraction of that amount, but a substantial sum nonetheless to those in desperate straits.

Though this ring is now out of business, the operation was far from unique. National Geographic Ultimate Explorer host Lisa Ling recently traveled to India to investigate reports of a widespread trade in organs illegally harvested from that nation's poor.

Kidney Village

Ling visited a desperate neighborhood known locally as "kidney village" because so many of its residents had illegally sold one of their kidneys. The practice is underground, but widespread enough that finding many donors was not a problem for the Ultimate Explorer team.

"They said that they received about $800 a kidney, which for them is a year's salary," Ling told National Geographic News. "It's a decent amount of money to them, but of course when it runs out they can't sell more organs."

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