The Risks of Transplant Tourism

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When people languish on a wait-list for a kidney transplant, they may start to consider a desperate measure: Traveling to a country where they can buy a donor kidney on the black market. But beyond the legal and ethical pitfalls, experts say, the health risks are not worth it. Most countries ban the practice, sometimes called “transplant tourism,” and it has been widely condemned on ethical grounds. Now a new study highlights another issue: People who buy a donor kidney simply do not fare as well.

Researchers in Bahrain found that people who traveled abroad to buy a kidney — to countries like the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Iran — sometimes developed serious infections. Those infections included the liver diseases hepatitis B and C, as well as cytomegalovirus, which can be life-threatening to transplant recipients, the investigators said. In addition, people who bought donor kidneys also faced higher rates of surgical complications and organ rejection, versus those who received a legal transplant in their home country.

Dr. Amgad El Agroudy, of Arabian Gulf University, was to present the findings Friday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Nephrology (ASN), in San Diego. It’s not clear how common it is for U.S. patients to take a chance on traveling abroad to buy a black-market kidney, according to Dr. Gabriel Danovitch, director of kidney transplantation at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We really have no way of knowing what the numbers are,” said Danovitch, who was not involved in the study. “But,” he added, “my sense is that the numbers are fairly small, as the dangers of transplant tourism are becoming more and more clear.” Why is it a risky proposition? According to Danovitch, there are a few broad reasons: The paid organ donors may not be properly screened, and the recipients may not be good candidates for a transplant, to name two. “In a paid system, the prime focus is on making money,” Danovitch said. “Centers that are willing to do these don’t really care what happens to the donors or recipients after the transplant.”

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