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Regional markers of despair: Iraqi organ sales explode onto the market

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I follow illicit organ transplants as another marker of distress on the part of the donors - voluntary and otherwise, as a tracker of revenue and other associated, unpublicized grey market activities on the part of the providers, and as a tracker of possible blackmail and criminal prosecution of the donees. So it was with some sadness that almost all of the mirrors of Black market organ trade is Baghdad's new growth industry did little to put the practice and regional upsurge of kidney transplants in Iraq into perspective.

Falling safety and increasing desperation have driven an upsurge in the black market trade in organs, apparently focused on kidneys, in which "a good price" for a kidney is "$1,400 (about £765)" but "Would-be buyers with an eye for a bargain can now pick up a new kidney for as little as $700, given the desperation of fit and healthy Iraqis for money":

With unemployment in Iraq at about 60 per cent, the chance to earn money by touting body parts is a more calculated risk than, say, becoming a $150-a-month rookie policeman at the mercy of suicide attackers. In the main their customers are other Iraqis, for whom kidney problems are common thanks to decades of poor diet, water and medical care. As news of the black market trade has spread, however, wealthier transplant "tourists" from around the Arab world have started flocking to Baghdad, attracted by the rock-bottom prices. [The] price compares favourably to the $5,000 cost of a kidney on the black market in Turkey, or $3,000 in India. In Iraq, the operation itself typically costs $2,000.

Criminal elements have entered the organ market by coercing or duping donors into accepting the most modest sums. Even when the donor can receive "market price," the prices paid will remain depressed and supply plentiful so long as the economic situation continues to falter:

In 2001, the going rate for a donor was $2,000. The fact that the price has tumbled, some doctors say, suggests that Iraqis are even more desperate for money now than they were under Saddam. "It wasn't easy two or three years ago to find a donor," said a senior nurse at another Baghdad hospital. "Now patients' relatives need to make no big effort."

Hospital scruples vary widely with some asking no questions and others only accepting "donors who are relatives of the person needing the transplant":

In Arab society, however, the term "cousin" is often used to describe someone who is a friend or a fellow tribe member. At Al Karama hospital, it is not clear how rigidly the relatives-only rule is applied.

While it is true that Iraq's hospitals are resource short and often suffer hygienic lapses, the capabilities of the black market should not be underestimated. Taking a page from the US mobile Army surgical hospital (MASH) and its successors, the combat surgical hospitals (CSH) and forward surgical teams (FST), all of which were designed as mobile forward-deployed military hospitals providing sophisticated medical attention, it is not at all impossible to establish a clean room environment in an otherwise tainted area. I could see wealthy recipients, Arab and otherwise, funding such facilities. Such facilities would, however, become targets for attacks or kidnappings given the level of violence now present in Iraq.

I wonder how this new donor pattern affects the global illicit organ trade and if the Iraqi situation will devolve in kidnapping for total organ harvesting as criminal kidnapping blossomed into conventional ransom as well as resale to a terrorist group for politicized execution.

The general flow of organs is from poor to rich, from South to North. After that the variations are many:

  1. The level of "commitment" of the donor, i.e., the donor remains living and so gives up an organ for which he or she has redundancy such as a kidney, or the donor dies or is dead so that a full body harvest (corneas, skin, internal organs) can be made. (I have often wondered if one of the unspoken reasons that China moved from a bullet to the rear of the head to lethal injection was to make cornea removals less problematic.)
  2. The location of donor, middleman/removal, and donee, e.g., migrations of Brazilians to South Africa for organ removal which are then transplanted into donees from Israel, Europe and the US; or India where Indians or Bangladeshis have organs removed locally for domestic and international transplantation; or China where the organs of executed criminals are transplanted locally into more wealthy Chinese as well as Japanese, Malay, Taiwanese, and now US visitors.
  3. Seasons and auspicious periods: Asians are especially fond of propitious dates such as the lunar new-year.

For those wishing to learn more start with the work of Nancy Scheper-Hughes of Organs Watch: The Global Traffic in Organs and Organ Trade: The new cannibalism. A view of the China trade can be found at China: The Use of Organs from Executed Prisoners, Sale of Human Organs in China, and Illegal Human Organ Trade from Executed Prisoners in China. A glimpse of the transatlantic trade can be found in Tracking the Sale of a Kidney on a Path of Poverty and Hope and What is a kidney worth?

It will be an illuminating journey should you undertake it.

Black market organ trade is Baghdad's new growth industry
By Saleh Al Jibouri in Baghdad and Colin Freeman
Telegraph (UK)
Filed: 22/05/2005

Organs Watch
University of California, Berkeley

The Global Traffic in Organs
By Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Current Anthropology, V 41 N2:191-224, April 2000
HTML here

Organ Trade: The new cannibalism
By Nancy Scheper-Hughes
The New Internationalist April: 14-17, 1998

Kidney trade probe moves to Israel
By Monica Laganparsad
Pretoria News
February 18, 2005

What is a kidney worth?
By Abraham McLaughlin, Ilene R. Prusher, and Andrew Downie
Christian Science Monitor
from June 09, 2004 edition

Tracking the Sale of a Kidney on a Path of Poverty and Hope
By LARRY ROHTER
New York Times
May 23, 2004

China: The Use of Organs from Executed Prisoners
Amnesty International
28.06.2001

Sale of Human Organs in China
Michael E. Parmly, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
Hearing Before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights
Washington, DC
June 27, 2001

China Turns Body Parts of Criminals Into Cash
NewsMax.com Wires
Thursday, May 17, 2001

Illegal Human Organ Trade from Executed Prisoners in China
Case Study: 632, Prison Organs from China
Dena Kram, April 4, 2001

Gordon Housworth



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