The illegal trade in kidneys has risen to such a level that about 10,000 operations involving purchased human organs now take place annually, amounting to more than one an hour, WHO experts have revealed.
Evidence collected by a worldwide network of doctors shows that traffickers are defying laws intended to curtail their activities and are cashing in on rising international demand for replacement kidneys driven by the increase in diabetes and other diseases.
Patients, many of whom go to China, India or Pakistan for surgery, can pay up to US$200,000 for a kidney to gangs who harvest organs from vulnerable, desperate people, sometimes for as little as US$5,000.
The vast sums to be made by both traffickers and surgeons have been underlined by the arrest by Israeli police last week of 10 people, including a doctor, suspected of belonging to an international organ trafficking ring and of committing extortion, tax fraud and grievous bodily harm. Other illicit organ trafficking rings have been uncovered in India and Pakistan.
The Guardian contacted an organ broker in China who advertised his services under the slogan: “Donate a kidney, buy the new iPad!” He offered ￡2,500 (US$3,900) for a kidney and said the operation could be performed within 10 days.
The resurgence of trafficking has prompted the WHO to suggest that humanity itself is being undermined by the vast profits involved and the division between poor people who undergo “amputation” for cash and the wealthy sick who sustain the body parts trade.
“The illegal trade worldwide was falling back in about 2006-2007 — there was a decrease in ‘transplant tourism,’” said Luc Noel, a doctor and WHO official who runs a unit monitoring trends in legitimate and underground donations and transplants of human organs.
“The trade may well be increasing again. There have been recent signs that that may well be the case. There is a growing need for transplants and big profits to be made. It’s ever growing, it’s a constant struggle. The stakes are so big, the profit that can be made so huge, that the temptation is out there,” he added.
Lack of law enforcement in some countries, and lack of laws in others, mean that those offering financial incentives to poor people to part with a kidney have it too easy, Noel said.
Kidneys make up 75 percent of the global illicit trade in organs, Noel estimates. Rising rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems are causing demand for kidneys to far outstrip supply.
Data from the WHO shows that of the 106,879 solid organs known to have been transplanted in 95 member states in 2010 (legally and illegally), about 73,179 (68.5 percent) were kidneys. However, those 106,879 operations satisfied just 10 percent of the global need, the WHO said.
The organization does not know how many cases involved the organ being obtained legitimately from a deceased donor or living donor, such as a friend or relative of the recipient.
However, Noel believes that one in 10 of those 106,879 organs was probably procured by black marketeers. If so, that would mean that organ gangs profited almost 11,000 times in 2010.
Proof of illegal trafficking is being collected by networks of doctors in various countries known as “custodian groups.” The groups work to support the Declaration of Istanbul, the 2008 statement against global organ exploitation that was agreed by almost 100 nations.