China Cracking Down on Organ Transplants for Tourists

February 12, 2009 10:56 AM
by Anne Szustek
China’s Ministry of Health said Tuesday that foreigners visiting the country will not be allowed to receive organ transplants, a practice that is drawing scrutiny worldwide.

China Reinforcing Foreign Transplant Ban

“Due to the lack of organ donors, shortage of organs is a problem in all countries, not just China. Priority must be given to domestic patients in urgent need of an operation,” Ministry of Health spokesman Mao Qunan said in a press conference, according to the China Daily. “If we started allowing organ transplants for tourists, the existing order will be disturbed.”

Hospitals that receive permission from provincial health authorities will be allowed to offer organ transplants to foreign visitors, but medical facilities that participate in illegal organ transplants will be punished.

The Clarion-Ledger reported in January that “transplant tourism” has boomed in India, China, Pakistan and the Philippines. A Web site for a transplantation clinic in China used to advertise a menu in English and Arabic for foreigners looking to buy an organ,with kidneys going for about $70,000, before they were shut down.

Illegal organ trafficking, a clandestine practice once largely considered a myth, is becoming a growing concern globally.

According to a report in Newsweek, organ trafficking is generally orchestrated by a criminal network that connects organ buyers, sellers and “broker friendly” hospitals where surgeons either look beyond the organ selling or simply agree to participate in the process. The World Health Organization has estimated that one-fifth of the 70,000 kidneys transplanted globally each year are from the black market.

“People all over were telling me that they didn’t have to go to a Third World hospital, but could get the surgery done in New York, Philadelphia or Los Angeles,” anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who has studied organ trafficking in several countries, told Newsweek. “At top hospitals, with top surgeons.”

Background: The worldwide organ trade

Last year in Britain, hospitals were drawing scrutiny for performing frequent organ transplants on foreigners.

Surgeons at King’s College Hospital in London, which is run by Britain's National Health Service, allegedly implanted about 50 livers donated by British residents from April 2003 to March 2008 for about $160,000 per surgery.

U.K. paper the Daily Mail reports that 22 of the 50 patients receiving the livers were from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Thanks largely to their oil wealth, the state healthcare programs of Kuwait and the UAE send patients abroad if local healthcare providers judge that treatment involves procedures beyond local expertise.

India and the Philippines have also made headlines recently as being source countries of paid transplant organs. Members of a medical team from a hospital near the Indian city of Delhi tricked some 500 low-paid laborers into believing they would be getting stints as day laborers. Instead they were forcibly put under and their kidneys were extracted.

Some of the victims received $1,275 for their kidneys, although reports show that the recipients of the organs paid up to 20 times that amount.

In a move to prevent poor residents from being taken advantage of by organ trading rings, the Philippines instituted a law in April that makes travel to the country to receive an organ from a non-relative a crime punishable by a prison sentence of up to 20 years. The Philippine Society of Nephrology said that the country is a “world ‘hotspot’ for human organ trafficking.”

Within the United States alone, some 100,000 are waiting for organ transplants, with a waiting time of up to three years. Some, including University of Pittsburgh medical researcher Harold Kyriazi, advocate for the sale of organs. Kyriazi, who runs the Web site, argues that if people were allowed to sell their organs, the supply of transplant organs would increase by 200 percent.

Reference: Organ transplant law and resources

The 2004 Organ Donation and Recovery Improvement Act (U.S.) assists living donors with the cost of travel, subsistence and incidental non-medical expenses.

The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network offers comprehensive information for people waiting for kidneys, including briefings on recent laws passed concerning organ donations and a list of transplant centers organized by organ and state.

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