An alternative to the risks of transplant tourism

Medical advances offer options for those with kidney failure who buy organs from the poor.

Pakistani citizens, who sold their kidneys for money, show scars at a police station in Lahore. KM Chaudary / AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

Desperation is what drives the illegal international trade in kidney transplants. Those suffering from renal failure are desperate to regain a life that does not require regular dialysis, while some people in impoverished countries are so desperately poor that selling their kidneys can seem to be a viable option.

As The National reported yesterday, at least 150 people from the UAE have become "transplant tourists" by travelling to places like China and Egypt for a new kidney. Their hopes of regaining health have been balanced against the illegality of the trade and the frequent consequences of that: unlicensed and substandard clinics, staffed by doctors whose skill level might explain why they are unable to find legitimate medical work and involving donors who might be infected with diseases such as hepatitis.

The risks are exemplified by the case of Alanood, a Ras Al Khaimah teenager whose kidneys failed when she was 10 years old, requiring her and her family to travel to Abu Dhabi three or four times a week for dialysis. She went to China for a kidney transplant two years ago but at the age of 15, the new kidney is already failing.

While one cannot help but feel sympathy for people like Alanood whose poor health leads to such desperate measures, advances in transplant medicine are offering hopes of a different solution. New immunosuppressive drugs are making the pool of potential donors much bigger. Previously donors had to be an exact match of tissue and blood type.

At the same time, the prospects of patients securing a viable kidney through legitimate means can be improved by a campaign within the UAE popularising organ donation. There is no religious impediment to this but there can often be a degree of cultural resistance. In Alanood’s case, her mother was a potential donor and was willing to donate her kidney but her husband and other members of the family were against it, fearing the mother too would fall ill.

An education campaign could show that transplants conducted in properly-run and well-resourced clinics pose little risk to the donor, while families could have the discussion allowing the donation of organs if one of them is left brain-dead by something like a car accident. Perhaps best of all, these advances might finally render redundant the aborrhent and illegal trade in for-profit transplants.