Consequences of the rise in illegal organ trafficking

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report demonstrating a rise in the number of human organs being sold on the black market. According to the paper, in 2010 over 10,000 organs were sold, translating to more than one organ sold every hour.

Consequences of the rise in illegal organ trafficking

Organ transplantation is a necessary treatment for many individuals whose organs have failed and has been in practice in the United States since the 1950s. In the U.S. organ donations are regulated by an independent non-for-profit organization, United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Organs are given to those whose need is the greatest, regardless of wealth or position. Unfortunately, the need for organs greatly outweighs the current supply. As of March 2012 over 113,115 patients are currently waiting for an organ to become available.

An illegal market has capitalized on these individuals’ desperation, and the prospects of large profits are creating unfortunate incentives, with patients willing to pay up to $200,000 for a kidney.  According to the WHO report, 76 percent of organs sold were kidneys, reflecting the growing demand secondary to complications of high blood pressure and diabetes.  

There are many ethical and health concerns surrounding the trafficking of human organs. In the majority of situations, those selling their organs represent members of vulnerable populations. In countries like Pakistan, China or India, a person can sell a kidney for $5,000, while those handling the transaction make a substantial profit.

Prior reports have also demonstrated that the recipients of illegal organs tend to fair worse than those who have received one legally.  A recent meta-analysis involving 39 original publications revealed that those obtaining organs abroad are at a higher risk of contracting transmissible diseases, such as hepatitis B or HIV. Furthermore the patient and organ survival rates abroad are significantly lower. These statistics might even underestimate the risk as the data is vulnerable to survivor bias; those who do not survive the procedure and return home are often not included in studies.

Additionally, given the duplicitous nature of illegal organ trade, there are many scams. In 2010, a former psychiatrist was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison for offering false promises of organ transplants in the Philippines, while taking over $400,000 dollars from patients. Over five patients actually travelled to the Philippines only to find out that there was no organ awaiting them. One of these patients died in the Philippines.

Regretfully, the number of individuals needing organs continues to grow while the number of donors remains stable. In the U.S., we have an opt-in policy where individuals have the option to become a donor but must take steps in order to do so. For those who are ambivalent about donations, this could be enough of a deterrent. Additionally, many do not know how to become a donor. One study, for instance, found that despite 90 percent of Americans supporting organ donation, only 30 percent knew the essential steps to becoming a donor. 

Many states seek to encourage individuals to become donors by allowing for consent on ones driver’s license. For instance, on the back of a New York or New Jersey driver’s license is a place where one can sign to become an organ donor. However, it is most important to discuss your wishes with your family and friends. To learn more about organ donation in the United State please visit