Sunday, May 27, 2007

Organ Vendors

In Lahore, Pakistan yesterday, 6 people were arrested, including 3 doctors and the owner of a private hospital, after authorities identified them as key participants in an illegal kidney transplant "ring"? Can we even call it a "ring"? I'm not sure what one would call that.

Authorities in eastern Pakistan said that many men, like the ones seen here with healing nephrectomy scars, are selling their kidneys on the black market for about $1000 to pay off debts.

Turns out that rumors of people selling organs on the "Black Market" are quite true - as if there was a doubt. They may not be waking up in a bathtub with a note on the wall written in blood but whenever medicine is practiced secretively corners are cut (no pun intended) and there is usually little recourse for those under the knife.

It does bring up an interesting question, though. If done safely and properly, what is the harm of selling an organ that you can safely live without in return for monetary compensation? Before we continue the dialogue though, let me clarify that I would never, ever advocate such a practice - unless, of course, it was sanctioned by our federal government and overseen by a tightly controlling administrative body with all the proper governmental bells and whitsles, etc etc.

That said, the benefits to private citizens selling kidneys could, if done properly, save billions of dollars in the United States alone - not to mention thousands of lives. Hundreds of thousand of kidneys fail each year and patients often end up on chronic hemodialysis, despite the fact that renal transplant is the treatment of choice. Dozens of studies have shown that a successful kidney transplant improves the quality of life and reduces the mortality risk for most patients, when compared with maintenance dialysis. Chronic renal failure is a major cost burden on our health system and also brings with it or accelerates a slew of other concomittant diseases, like coronary artery disease, heart failure, hypertension, liver disease, stroke, and on and on and on.

In the US, there is an ever-rising incidence and prevalence of kidney failure and the number of patients enrolled in the end-stage renal disease (ESRD) Medicare-funded program has increased from approximately 10,000 beneficiaries in 1973 to 86,354 in 1983, and to 452,957 as of December 31, 2003. Impressive? How about this: The total cost of the ESRD program in the US was approximately $27 billion. Now, of course, not all of these patients who are maintained on dialysis would be candidates for a transplant, but if we had more kidneys, we would also be able to loosen our restrictions on who can and who cannot receive a kidney. Restoration of renal function to these patients not only changes the way theiur kidneys function but allows these patients to get back a significant portion of their life that is spent sitting in chairs receiving HD for 3-4 hours thrice weekly.

And what of the seller's role in all of this? Healthy kidney donors actually function quite well with one kidney. Is it better to have a back-up? Of course. But perhaps the seller really needs the money for his own health or children or whatever. We allow people to sell everything and anything in this country, why not body parts? In order for one to give up body parts , they actually have to be dead. And they don't even make any money from it? [Which brings up another interesting question? If they paid families for the organs of relatives that passed away, would the frequency of organ donation increase?] What about American football players? Are they not indirectly selling their body parts for a salary? A knee? A shoulder? A brain?

Another potential benefit to the practice of buying and selling kidneys on the free market would be the negative impact it would have on the so-called "black market". The desire to seek out dingy hospitals in the Third World to avoid waiting on the transplant list would be quelched if you could do the same thing at a strictly regulated American hospital.

In 2002, Charles Erin an John Harris put forth a rough sketch of how they thought this could work in the Bristich Medical Journal:

The bare bones of an ethical market would look like this: the market would be confined to a self governing geopolitical area such as a nation state or indeed the European Union. Only citizens resident within the union or state could sell into the system and they and their families would be equally eligible to receive organs. Thus organ vendors would know they were contributing to a system which would benefit them and their families and friends since their chances of receiving an organ in case of need would be increased by the existence of the market. (If this were not the case the main justification for the market would be defeated.) There would be only one purchaser, an agency like the National Health Service (NHS), which would buy all organs and distribute according to some fair conception of medical priority. There would be no direct sales or purchases, no exploitation of low income countries and their populations (no buying in Turkey or India to sell in Harley Street). The organs would be tested for HIV, etc, their provenance known, and there would be strict controls and penalties to prevent abuse.

So what is the argument against allowing citizens to sell organs in a controlled and organized fashion? I suppose that it might pose a significant health risk in that there is a surgical organ extraction and that later on down the line there might be an additive health risk associated with having one kidney or half of a liver. Actually the short-term complication rate of kidney donation has hovered around 20%, while the mortality rate is less than 1%. Moreover, the risk of chronic renal failure amongst those donating their kidneys is equal to that of the general population.

Perhaps people have a "moral" objection to the business of body parts? But synthetic or manufactured body parts are okay - just not organs that come form a living human?

Some have argued that the rich will benefit while the poor will continue to suffer and be more likely to represent the majority of organ sellers. And that differs from the current system how? No matter what schema or health care plan we use in this country, those with money will always obtain "better" (i.e. more expensive) care because they can pay for it, and ostensibly they have a higher level of education enabling them to ask the right questions and find the right people. However, if anything, legalized organ doantion levels the playing field as more organs will become available and a regulated system of organ procurement will prevent those with all of the advantages ftrom taking advantage.

Buying and selling of human organs is not a new topic of discussion. It is a popular topic of conversation in the medical literature - especially amongst those in the University and Hospital Ethics departments, where procrastination and idle discussions are a favorite pasttime.

The truth is, this would never happen in the U.S. - not becaue it is wrong, but because we value opinion and discussion and democracy. And there are just too many people that would make fighting this their cause. For what reason? Your guess is as good as mine, but if you doubt it, just look at how stem cell research - probably the most promising new technology of our century - has fared. Literally stifled by the President of the United States. And I have never heard him speak intelligently about that.

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