According to UNOS, a new person becomes in need of an organ donation every ten minutes. As of January 2019, over 113,000 people are on the waiting list. However, only 58% of adults in the United States are signed up as donors and a mere 3 in 1,000 people die each year in such a way that allows for their organs to be harvested. Obviously, this creates a serious shortage of organs available for donation. In fact, 20 new people day per day become in need of an organ transplant. Consequently, some patients turn to desperate measures, giving way to an extensive black market for organs.
Organ trafficking is on the rise worldwide, with reports coming in from China, India, South Africa, Brazil, and a number of other countries (3). China, in particular, has received many charges of illicit organ trading operations. A recent tribunal initiated by the Internal Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC) found that Chinese organ traffickers are targeting members of marginalized groups detained in prison camps. They estimate that 1.5 million prisoners are killed each year so that their organs can be sold. Survivors of these camps have given testimony claiming that, upon entrance, they were forced to submit to a series of medical procedures such as blood tests, x-rays, and ultrasounds - likely to test the health of their organs (4).
In June 2019, the China Tribunal concluded “beyond reasonable doubt” that crimes against humanity had been committed against Chinese prisoners. In particular, a Muslim minority in China as well as practictioners of the Falun Gong, a spriitual discipline banned by the government, were the main victims. However, organ transplant abuse is not limited to just China. The World Health Organization estimates that 1/5th (70,000) of all transplanted kidneys each year are trafficked (3). This high incidence of organs that are illegally harvested throughout the world annually highlights the need of the international community to take action. The Declaration of Istanbul on Organ Trafficking and Transplant Tourism - created in 2008 after a summit with 150 of the world’s leading experts in science and medicine - was one step in this direction. This document clearly defines unethical practices such as organ trafficking and transplant tourism (the phenomenon where patients travel abroad to purchase organs for transplant) and asserts that they should be strictly prohibited (1).
Currently, scientists and doctors are studying methods of lowering the need for organ transplants through the development of other alternatives. For example, stem cells - which have the ability to regenerate into different cell types in the body - are being used experimentally to repair damaged organs. There are elementary studies underway in which stem cells are injected into the infected hearts of mice to gauge whether they can mend diseased tissue (2). However, progress is still slow and few procedures have been undertaken on human patients.
While stem cells may provide a future alternative to organ transplants, right now the focus needs to be on eliminating the growing frequency of illegal organ trafficking and ensuring that all organ donations are legitimate.
- The declaration of Istanbul on organ trafficking and transplant tourism. (2008). The Indian Journal of Nephrology. DOI: 10.4103/0971-4065.43686
- Lytal, C. (2018, April 23). Growing hope: New organs? Not yet, but stem cell research is getting closer. Retrieved from https://stemcell.keck.usc.edu/new-organs-not-yet-but-stem-cell-research-is-getting-closer/
- Perry, P. (2016, April 15). What You Need to Know About Human Organ Trafficking. Retrieved from https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/what-you-need-to-know-about-human-organ-trafficking
- Smith, S. (2019, June 18). China Forcefully Harvests Organs from Detainees, Tribunal Concludes. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/china-forcefully-harvests-organs-detainees-tribunal-concludes-n1018646