Trading your kidney for an iPad2, would you?

Vietnamese victims of organ traffickers (Source:


If I ask whether you would trade your kidney for an iPad2 and perhaps another iPhone, what would you say? This news report about a 17 years old teenager in China must have left many people feeling amazed and frustrated about what is going on there. Giving away your kidney for iPad? Really?


If true, the issue highlights a major weakness in policy and law enforcement on organ transplantation in the country. The Lancet, as summarized in our HealthSpace.Asia blog, has just published a news article by Ted Alcorn describing how a migrant worker was forced to sell his kidney or how renal failure patients are still going to China to get their 'new' ones. The Ministry of Health and the Red Cross are planning to respond by implementing a national policy to address such issue.  


The Economist, a popular news magazine, had long argued for an open market for organ transplantation. It highlighted the Iranian model to legalize the sell of kidneys where regulated kidney market became, arguably, better at protecting organ donors, reducing long queues of waiting recipients given serious global shortages, and making the system more efficient. It also argued that banning organ selling ends up driving the business underground with more harms to both sides as in the Indian case. It is estimated that at least 2000 kidneys are still being sold in the Indian black market each year.


The Economist's articles may grossly neglect the ethical and social implications of such market activities. Poorly informed individuals and vulnerable groups may be lured or coerced into the trade exploitatively. It may also be debatable whether it will create increasing overall organ availability or it may instead reduce living related donation. Nevertheless, the news about this Chinese youth reminds me further that having an outdated policy or poorly enforced law could be even worse. And the problem certainly is not limited to China where reported scandals on illegal organ transplantation can be found all over the world from Northern Ukraine, Northeast AmericaCentral Manila or South Africa. The increasing epidemic of noncommunicable and chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension will likely drive the demand for organ transplantation much higher. Without proper policy and incentives for disease prevention, encouragement of legal donation, and enforcement of legislation, we may have to continue to read more similar stories in the future. 


If you have time, I would love to hear more whether organ trafficking is also an issue of concern in your country? What's your view on the extent of the problem and the existing policy/laws in your country? Please leave your comments below.



Note: below are some academic papers I found useful

- Shimazono's article, "The State of the International Organ Trade", in the Bulletin of WHO  

- Jafar's article, "Organ Trafficking: Global Solutions for a Global Problem", in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases 

- Voo et al.'s article, "The Ethics of Organ Transplantation", from Annals Academy of Medicine

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Comment by Nicola Suyin Pocock on June 13, 2011 at 3:49pm
We touch on this issue in the latest ATM on trade and health - poverty is at the root of the organ trade, as you mention it is this group who are most vulnerable to unscrupulous brokers who profit most from organ sales. We recommend large scale educational campaigns to dispel myths about organ donation and increase legal donation rates (low in Asia currently), especially targeted educational campaigns with vulnerable groups who may not understand the long term health risks from organ donation but who donate "out of desperation" for the money. The question is who would a) fund and b) deliver this type of education. Could it be streamlined as an MOH activity in funding terms... and could NGOs deliver this type of education?
Comment by Rosalia Sciortino on June 13, 2011 at 7:38am
The Economist's view  totally (and typically) fails to take into account power and economic disparities and makes you wonder what are the envisioned limits of commercialization efforts as related to human bodies and lifes: is it all for sell (legally or not)?
Comment by Kyaw Min Soe on June 7, 2011 at 12:18pm
It seem to me that poverty are the root cause of organ trafficking. The rich want to buy and the poor willing to sell. How to increase the living standards of the poor people would be a part of the solution. So they don't need to sell to get the money.
Comment by Lincoln Chen on June 7, 2011 at 6:17am
What a stunning photo showing that this dreadful practice is not an isolated case!!!

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