by Cecil Morella
The Philippines is one of the world’s “hot spots” for human organ trafficking, said the Philippine Society of Nephrology, whose members are renal specialists. “Between 2002 and 2005, when a 10 percent cap for transplants to foreigners was supposed to have been enforced, more than 400 kidney transplants from local donors to foreign recipients were performed,” said society president Lyn Gomez.
A total of 436 kidney transplants from unrelated, living donors were performed in 2006 in 24 Philippine hospitals, according to the government’s Renal Disease Control Programme. Baseco is the best-known living donor community, with local officials estimating that some 3,000 of the slum’s 50,000 residents have sold a kidney. “The kidney trade has been here since the 70s,” said Baseco Village Chief Kristo Hispano.
Before he sold his kidney in 1991, Rosco said he had been regularly selling his blood for 35 pesos (84 US cents) a litre at Manila’s commercial blood banks. The Filipino nephrologists recently discovered that a number of depressed towns near Manila, including Calauag, Gumaca, Lopez, and Sariaya, are home to hundreds of farmers, tricycle drivers, uneducated or unemployed men who had sold a kidney.
Some had been paid as little as 20,000 pesos (481 dollars) “plus a grocery package and some medication,” but never received post-surgical care, said renal specialist Benita Padilla, who conducted the study. Some now suffer from high blood pressure or renal disorder themselves. Selling or exporting human organs is punishable in the Philippines by jail terms of at least 20 years plus stiff fines, but few traffickers have been prosecuted, said Amihan Abueva, a Manila-based anti-human trafficking advocate. She said the organ networks operate in a grey area where the patients get “donations” from non-relatives. The Philippines has only 21 kidney transplant surgeons, the health department said. Organ transfers from live donors cater mostly to wealthy foreigners, many of them from the Middle East.
In spite of this huge potential donor pool, the health department says fewer than a thousand people a year of an estimated 10,000 Filipinos whose kidneys fail receive transplants. In a country where a third of the population lives on a dollar a day or less, few can afford to pay at least 17,000 dollars, even though the alternative – dialysis – is equally costly.
“We cannot impose on donors. We are just an administrative agency,” said health undersecretary Alexander Padilla, a member of a government team that drafted a new national policy on kidney transplants. The government has temporarily suspended transplants from living non-related donors under pain of license cancellations for hospitals and surgeons. He said health officials and representatives from the medical professions are drafting new guidelines for these transplants. Which he said may or may not ban transplants to foreigners in the future.