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Global approach needed to stop traffickers

By | September 15th 2010

The shocker of the month was the Kenyan who tried - and almost succeeded - in selling off his albino friend to a Tanzanian witchdoctor, who needed body parts for his rituals. It eclipsed human ‘vampire’ Onyancha like an avalanche.

It is the kind of human interest story editors, readers and viewers love. But two days ago the tale of Eliud Mwangi and Paul Kariuki peddling human organs to some unidentified buyer, brought to the fore questions of ethics in the human parts trade that is a worldwide phenomenon.

A while back, the Journal of the American Medical Association compared prices paid for body parts like the kidney, ranging from a measly Sh80,000 in India, and up to Sh32,000 in the Philippines. Others offer up to Sh12 million.

CBS News aired a documentary a few years ago, depicting a sting operation in which a priest acted as a middleman for a doctor, willing to pay close to Sh80 million for one kidney.

Before we don a moral fig leaf and condemn the ‘enterprising’ Nairobi duo, it is important to note that there are millions of dollars passing back and forth for the purchase of human body parts across the globe.

Many destitute families are often willing to give up some organ for a small consideration in cash. Most notorious are India, Philippines, central Europe, Ukraine, Romania and Albania.

Granted, there is a thriving trade in organ harvesting and hospitals and foundations routinely seek voluntary donations of corneas, bones, kidneys and livers to be kept in cold storage for many reasons.

legal conduits

First are body tissue regeneration, research lab needs and human body "spare parts" for people willing and able to pay exorbitantly for them.

Some people have even been known to leave wills that their entire bodies be preserved in suspended animation until science comes up with a way to bring them back to life in the future.

While these are legal conduits, there have mushroomed illegal distribution centres in the US, Brazil, Israel, South Africa, the Scandinavia and Germany, where unscrupulous merchants deliberately seek out dirt poor regions for tissues.

The rise in human trafficking and thriving baby adoption is thought to be closely related to these syndicates. Obviously many countries are keeping a close watch on such trafficking in persons, especially babies, ostensibly for "childless couples".

When the trade was briefly legalised in the Philippines, there was almost feverpitch demand for organs, forcing the Government to hurriedly shut the window of opportunity.

Body part trading has in some countries been perfected by organised gangs who scour hospitals for victims of road accidents. Of course there is collusion with hospital staff at the highest levels for such organs to be harvested within hours of death.

The West Australian daily surveyed in January 2002 that the organs business in Bosnia-Herzegovina saw sellers offering their ‘wares’ in the open market, through newspaper adverts.

The report said prices reached a dizzying Sh5.5 million, which when compared to the average monthly wage of less than Sh16,000, was like striking gold.

Chilling reports mention organ thefts being related to abductions, mainly of children.

As one report indicates, to stem this trade, several researchers have actively campaigned for legalisation of trade in organs since: "the movement and flow of living donor organs — mostly kidneys — is from South to North, from poor to rich, from black and brown to white, and from female to male bodies".

morality issues

This argument may sound valid since the cross-border sale of body parts followed an international ban on organ sales and live donor organs. But again, abject poverty of potential donors, long patient waiting lists and the better quality of organs harvested from live people make organ sales irresistible.

The Kenyatta National Hospital debacle, and the unsuccessful sale of an albino to a sorcerer, are but a blip on the radar of this underground and thriving trade.

We can moralise over the issue and criticise the middlemen, or be proactive and legalise the sale of body parts.

If not, maintain the status quo that no price is high enough to justify the desecration or sale of any human, dead or alive. Alternatively, the penalty for such trafficking can be made so punitive that it would not be worth anyone’s while to engage in it.

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