South Africa has its own scandal involving illegal kidney transplants (see below) and the internet has become a powerful tool for those willing to let go of a kidney for a price.
People in urgent need of organs are often not in a position to wait in the long donor queues, so some have taken to the black market and online traders to source the organ they so desperately need to survive. On the other side, desperately poor people are offering their kidneys for sale and, as Shaun Swingler finds out for Health24, the only winners are the scammers in the middle.
It’s easy to think of the illegal organ trade as existing only in movies but that is not the case. Some 5-10% of organ transplants worldwide are undertaken with criminal intent, according to the World Trade Organisation. And while the reality may not necessarily be that of a victim waking up in a bath full of ice with a stitched-up cut down their side, the real story is not very far off.
According to a report by the United Nations, illegal organ trafficking is an organised crime involving a host of players: a recruiter who identifies the vulnerable person, the desperate seller, the organ transporter, hospital or clinic staff and medical professionals, middlemen and contractors, buyers and organ banks where the organs are stored.
Trading in organs occurs in three broad categories:
- The first scenario involves traffickers forcing or tricking victims into giving up their organs.
- Secondly victims formally or informally agree to sell an organ and are then cheated by not being paid (or being paid less than promised) and,
- Thirdly vulnerable persons – such as migrants, homeless or the illiterate – are treated for an ailment which may or may not exist and their organs are removed without their knowledge.
Organ trafficking is increasingly going hand-in-hand with human trafficking. In September 2014 an Italian police investigation revealed that a gang of human traffickers accepted migrants’ organs as payment for smuggling them to Europe from northern Africa, and in 2006 the Mozambican Human Rights League revived claims that trafficking in human organs is done not through exporting the organs themselves, but through the trafficking of children.
Kidneys and livers are highest in demand of all organs. In the case of human kidneys, where there’s a worldwide average asking price of US$5 000 (±R58 000) per kidney, there’s a ready market of people willing to sell.
The sellers in these operations are often exploited, and their desperation taken advantage of. Many are not warned of the risks associated with the surgery, and the lasting health and financial impacts that procedures like these can have. Some of these sellers, in the case of sellers in India, are being paid as little as US$1 000 (±R11 600) to not only risk life-long health effects but to also risk up to seven years’ imprisonment.
Below is a map showing where organ donors and recipients reside, globally. 2012:
Credit: Der Spiegel. Source: Coalition for Organ Failure Solutions (COFS), Organs Watch
Illegal kidney transplants in South Africa
In South Africa, between 2001 and 2003, 109 illegal kidney transplants took place at St Augustine’s hospital in Durban – a Netcare group hospital. Five of those transplants involved the removal of kidneys from minors.
These illegal operations were allegedly facilitated by an Israeli organ broking syndicate run by Ilan Peri, an alleged organ trafficking kingpin. The syndicate brought paying Israeli citizens in need of kidneys to South Africa, where they would receive the organ from willing sellers the syndicate had arranged. The recipient would pay US$120 000 (±R1.4 million) per kidney.
At first the syndicate used sellers who were also from Israel, where they were paid on average US$20 000 (R231 800) for their kidney, but after the syndicate realised they could find people elsewhere in the world who would demand less money for their kidneys, they sourced sellers from Brazil and Romania who were willing to let them go for as little as US$6 000 (±R69 500).
The syndicate relied on the co-operation of doctors and hospital staff at St Augustine’s, and while all personnel at executive management level were absolved of responsibility for the scandal, Mail & Guardian is in possession of documents which indicate that top-level management at Netcare Group was likely complicit in the cross-border kidney trade.
In 2011, after a lengthy court battle, Netcare KwaZulu-Natal paid an admission of guilt fine of nearly R4 million for its involvement in the scandal. One of the surgeons involved, Dr Jeff Kallmeyer, pled guilty to 90 counts of contravention of the Human Tissues Act and was fined R150 000.
The four surgeons prosecuted claimed they were merely the scapegoats in a far larger, country-wide illegal kidney transplanting scheme. According to News24, Professor John Robbs, one of the four surgeons, claims that the organ transplants weren’t only happening at St Augustine’s, but were also taking place at Charlotte Maxeke and Garden City Hospitals in Johannesburg, and Christian Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape Town. He claims that a further 220 illegal transplants took place across these hospitals.
Kidneys for sale on the internet
The internet has become a powerful tool for those willing to let go of their kidney for a price. There are message boards with hundreds of potential sellers who have posted ads such as: “I want to sell my kidney FOR FINANCIAL REASON. I’m 33 years old. Weigh 70 K.G. My blood group is O+.”
There are also spoof sites on the web with banner ads such as “Invite your friend and get 20% of friend’s kidney price. Only until April 1”. One such site was set up to “draw attention to the problem of the illegal organ withdrawing”; however, the humour is lost when you scroll down the countless messages posted on the message boards by real people desperately trying to sell their kidneys.
Some of the comments were even from South Africa.
“Hi. I’m a healthy white South African in desperate need of financial aid. Is there any way I can do this from South Africa? Sell my kidney that is.”
“Hello. The above is my e-mail. I’m in South Africa. Young, healthy and white. I’m in desperate need of money. What can I get for my kidney and is it safe?”
And the demand for kidneys in South Africa is high too. There are 4 300 people on the organ donor list in South Africa, according to the Organ Donor Foundation. Around 1 000 of those are in need of kidneys. However, in 2013, only 229 kidneys were transplanted.
I contacted the people behind many of the hundreds of ads found on numerous websites and some of them responded. Many told me their primary motivator was financial.
“To be perfectly honest, when I put up the ad, I was feeling like a failure of a parent, not having enough income to help my teenage kids launch,” writes Sally* from Montana, USA. “I got several responses a month at first- tapering to about one request every other month over the next year -which I ignored because I wasn't 100% sure yet that I was ready to take the plunge and face the risks of donation. Finally, the financial pressure was too much, and I responded to one woman's request. We started making plans to fly me to her city in California for a match test, when she emailed one day and said she'd found another donor (she didn't say why, but the tone of her message went from warm and supportive to flat and cold).
That was the last time I responded to a kidney request. I get emails on it every 6 months or so these days, but I just read and delete them. I've forgotten the name of the website where I registered to donate, but if I remembered I would remove my offer.”
Amir* from Nepal writes: “I was selling it for $3 500 to save my car going back to the bank. A lot of people contacted [and] me asked for [a] free kidney. Some wanted me to come to India. A lot of people from Dubai called. Mostly brokers contacted me.”
Many sellers were contacted by men claiming to be organ brokers – the individuals or syndicates who facilitate the illegal buying, selling and transplanting of organs – but with every person I spoke to, those organ brokers turned out to be con men.
“I have not had any luck selling my kidney,” writes Dhiresh* from India, “that’s because I have had people trying to scam me for money up front”.
Dhiresh says the scammers will demand money from the seller up front to have their blood type tested but once the money is paid, the scammer is never heard from again.
Would you sell you kidney to buy a better life? CNN's Becky Anderson examines a documentary which explores the legal, moral and ethical aspects of the human organ trade.
I contacted a few of these alleged organ brokers, and had a long conversation with Richard Newson, or Richard Nelson, or Richards Nelson (it differed from message to message).
“It's quite obvious that I don't really have the chance to answer all your questions due to the secrecy of our operations,” Newson’s first all caps email read.
He tells me he has been in the “organ trade business” for 15 years and has written about his experiences in a 15 page article. The article, he says, “Contains all you need to know about the human organ trades, ranging from what leads to sales of human organ to the quest to buy organs and the advantages / disadvantages of selling of human body organs. Also included is the ways to lure people to sell the body organs, agency used for advertisements and hospitals involved in the business.”
He says he is willing to send it to me “If you offer a good price for it”.
After asking how I could be assured that he was the real deal he says: “We buy these organs from hospitals, individuals and also sell them to bigger hospitals in countries you never imagine these would be done. Honestly it's not a good experience for me. I feel bad when I see people who sell the most important organ of their body for money. He said many people in developing countries are lured easily to sell their organs to make a living.
He continues: “It might also interest you to know that we partnership with hospitals in many countries, we also use the internet to advertise to the world, I don't really know your country, maybe we also [have] a partner hospital there - who knows.”
He explains that the money he is asking for his 15-page article will go directly to one of the syndicate’s patients who has just sold his kidney to take care of his sick children. After sending me the name of the alleged patient in New Delhi, India, he writes: “You have to send him the money for me to release the whole article .... But send a reasonable sum of money to him as the information [I] am giving to you is to be used to compensate this man.”
I dig around a little and find that in addition to his alleged "organ broking", "Richard Newson" also moonlights as a matchmaker, running a mail-order bride scam. When I ask him about this, he explains, “We also discovered the urgency in the young youths to find a European woman to get married to, then we set up an agency to facilitate such hook ups. [I] am in charge of online advertisement of all the business my organisations / company does.”
He sends me another email which reads: “This client will undergo kidney transplant in XXXXXXX hospital in the next 2 hours from the time sending you these mail, he will be paid xxxxx USD.
XXXX NAME XXXX
No Kidney Problem With The Grace Of ALLAH
Blood Group AB+
No Smoke Never
Weight 78 Kg
Qualification BBA (HONS) From Peshawar University.”
A few days go by where I don’t hear from Newson and then I receive this: “Shaun, hope you are listening to news, our package was intercepted in Thailand en route to France. It contains human body organs. But we are glad that our members were not arrested by the police, they were only detained and later released and they flew back to America. So if you think [I] am trying to deceive you, [I] am not. Everything is real and works very secretly.”
I scour the news and find an hours-old Reuters report of a Thai delivery company finding a package containing a number of preserved human body parts including an adult heart, a baby’s head and foot, and tattooed skin being sent to the United States, to an address in Las Vegas. The package was marked “children’s toys”.
Later that day it was reported that two Americans who’d allegedly sent the package had stolen the body parts from the medical museum at Thailand’s Siriraj Hospital. The Americans later fled the country, according to Reuters.
Arabian Business also reports that African cyber criminals posing as doctors offering to pay up to $130 000 (±R1 500 000) to buy live kidneys, as part of a ploy to extract personal and bank account details from gullible victims.
The shortage of willing organ donors for the large number of people desperately seeking them has fuelled the worldwide illicit online organ trade. But without an adequate clamp-down on the syndicates who facilitate these trades or a re-evaluation on organ trade laws worldwide, many desperate would-be sellers will continue to fall prey to the scammers and con-men lurking in these dark corners of the internet.
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If you would like to donate an organ, call the Organ Donor Foundation, toll free, on 0800 22 6611 or visit www.odf.org.za for more information.