The slide on the screen showed several skinny, dark Filipino men lined up, displaying their sacred wound, the kidney scar, long as a sabre slice across their convex torsos. More than 150 representatives of scientific and medical bodies from 78 countries stared solemnly at the photo during the Istanbul Summit of 2008, the defining moment in the global recognition of human trafficking for ‘fresh’ kidneys. ‘Is this why we began as transplant surgeons?’ one of the convenors, US surgeon Francis Delmonico, asked. ‘Are we comfortable with this? Is this fair? Do we want to participate in this?’
The man sitting next to me, a Hindu surgeon in white robes, reminiscent of Hippocrates, was moved. When I asked what he was thinking, he replied: ‘This is too late. Kidney selling is no longer a strange or exotic act. It is normal, everyday, and entrenched. We in the South can agree that it is a tragic turn of events, but the demand comes from outside.’
In the early 1980s a new form of human trafficking, a global trade in kidneys from living persons to supply the needs and demands of ‘transplant tourists’, emerged in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. The first scientific report on the phenomenon, published in The Lancet in 1990, documented the transplant odysseys of 131 renal patients from three dialysis units in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. They travelled with their private doctors to Bombay (now Mumbai), India, where they were transplanted with kidneys from living ‘suppliers’ organized by local brokers trolling slums and shantytowns. The sellers were paid between $2,000 and $3,000 for a ‘spare’ organ. On return, these transplant tourists suffered an alarming rate of post-operative complications and mortalities resulting from mismatched organs, and infections including HIV and Hepatitis C. There was no data on, or discussion of, the possible adverse effects on the kidney sellers, who were still an invisible population of anonymous supplier bodies, similar to deceased donors.
In 1997, I co-founded Organs Watch, specifically to draw attention to the then invisible population of kidney ‘suppliers’. Today human trafficking for organs is a small, vibrant and extremely lucrative business that involves some 50 nations.
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