Emiratis travelling abroad for illegal kidney transplants

Dr Ammar Abdulbaki, lead transplant physician at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC) in Abu Dhabi, said it was common belief among the public 'that it’s OK to take an organ from other people, but not from my family'.

“I’ve heard horror stories and seen horrible pictures,” said Dr Ammar Abdulbaki, from SKMC. “Some people come back with rejected kidneys, open wounds, bleeding." Lee Hoagland/The National
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ABU DHABI // Emiratis are travelling abroad for illegal kidney transplants, putting their lives and others’ at risk.

Dr Ammar Abdulbaki, lead transplant physician at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC) in Abu Dhabi, said it was common belief among the public “that it’s OK to take an organ from other people, but not from my family”.

He insisted, however, that kidney donation was a safe procedure with no significant risk when a healthy donor was involved and the operation was conducted in sterile conditions.

Most patients who travel from the UAE go to Egypt or China. Some claim the trips are funded by private organisations or other benefactors. All say they would pay for a kidney and risk the lives of strangers rather than that of their own families since they have the option.

The selling of organs is illegal worldwide. UAE law requires that organ donors must be relatives of the patient.

“Relatives can be up to the fourth degree, such as in-laws and siblings through milk kinship,” Dr Abdulbaki said. “There are so many options.”

Emiratis, however, continue to go abroad and it is not unusual for them to return to the UAE and seek care from Dr Abdulbaki.

“Unrelated donors are not allowed to donate in most Gulf countries because they have a lot of expats and a unique social fabric that might be grounds for abuse. You don’t want people taking advantage of the poor,” Dr Abdulbaki said.

He knew of 150 patients, the majority Emirati, who have gone abroad for transplants in the past 10 years.

“That is in my clinic alone,” he said. “There are other clinics.”

Because the transplant operations are often done on the black market, many patients have serious complications with some cases even leading to death.

“I’ve heard horror stories and seen horrible pictures,” he said. “Some people come back with rejected kidneys, open wounds, bleeding. Since I’ve been here in 2010 they all survived but many have lost the kidney.”

Dr Abdulbaki said most complications could be avoided if transplants were done in the UAE.

In 2010, the transplant programme, which was launched two years previously, had its first Emirati patient.

“We currently do close to 50 transplants per year but we need to reach to 200 to be able to serve everyone. We are increasing capacity. Most people bring their relatives to donate but there are always about 30 per cent of people who don’t have donors and can be placed on a waiting list.”

Currently there are 15 people on the SKMC waiting list for kidney transplants. They have been on the list for two years. If a patient has a ready donor, there is no wait.

“At our centre we have a success rate of 98 per cent,” Dr Abdulbaki said. “So 98 per cent of our kidneys after three years are functioning. Those transplanted abroad have a 70 per cent success rate.”

Some of the illegal transplants, he said, were performed in less than ideal conditions, and seldom in a hospital.

“The doctors may be bad doctors and donors may be bad donors. They could be old or sick. The tissue might not be matching well. There is a lot of ground for cheating. In China, in particular, the kidney is taken from executed prisoners.”

Dr Abdulbaki and his team have been actively working to educate the public.

“This is why we opened our programme. The justification [for going abroad] in the past was that there were no transplant clinics in the Emirates.”

Health Authority – Abu Dhabi (Haad) sends patients with complicated conditions abroad for transplants on the condition they are accompanied by a donor. Haad said those travelling without a donor were turned away, because under joint agreements with hospitals overseas it is illegal to operate and transplant a kidney that is not from a related donor.

“Don’t risk your life,” Dr Abdulbaki advised patients who insist on bypassing the law and are considering buying a kidney overseas.

“You might die or lose the kidney. You don’t know what sort of kidney you are getting. You are hurting yourself and others.”

He admitted that some patients do come to a point where they are running out of options. However, “it’s hard for me to believe that they don’t have anyone to donate”.

Most of those who go abroad don’t need to, he said. “Most of them just don’t want to take from their relatives.

“It is very sad to see this because the UAE government has provided everything and for free.”