New Egyptian law targets illegal organ transplants

A tattoo covering a scar on the body of a victim of an illegal kidney harvesting by a gang in Cairo, Egypt. FILE | AFRICA REVIEW 

Egypt has a new law banning the sale of human organs, imposing severe restrictions on transplant operations for foreigners, and stipulating long jail sentences and huge fines for violations

“This law will bring the organ trade in Egypt down to a minimum,” assistant Health minister Abdel Hamid Abaza said. “With a law like this, patients will not need to seek organs in an illegal manner.”

The law, approved in December 2010 after protracted discussions in parliament, took effect only in June owing to country-wide political turmoil since January. It ends the debate about whether Islam or other religions permit the taking of organs from deceased persons - by allowing organs to be donated.

Doctors say about 1,500 illegal transplants take place annually. Most live organs come from the destitute who sell body parts to pay debts or start small projects to earn a living to escape unemployment and poverty. A recent report by the Central Auditing Organisation said 21 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million people live in poverty.

Most of those needing a transplant find costs prohibitive. For example, a legal liver transplant costs $44,000-53,000.

“This is too much for an average Egyptian,” said Dr Mahmud Al Metiny, a leading liver surgeon in Cairo. “This will make matters harder for patients, particularly the poor.”

Trafficking

In 2010, the World Health Organisation (WHO) described Egypt as a “hub” for organ trafficking, saying the country was one of five organ trafficking hotspots.

“The approval of this law is a wonderful step that creates hope for thousands of patients who have been waiting a long time for life-saving transplant operations,” said Hussein A. Gezairy, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean.

"It is also a significant step towards ending illegal organ trafficking, which usually results in operations conducted under unsafe conditions and harming both donor and patient."

According to the Coalition for Organ-Failure Solutions (a non-profit health and human rights organisation trying to combat the trafficking of humans for their organs), donors and organ sellers in Egypt consist mainly of young men aged 22-27, while recipients and buyers are largely over 45. Brokers, it notes, solicit vulnerable individuals for organ sales, and some donors have been lured from as far as Darfur in western Sudan.

Implementing the new law, say experts, will be challenging despite a newly established transplant fund designed to help the poorest. Dr Al Metiny and other specialists wonder how many transplants the fund can pay for.

Another problem is that few people are ready to donate organs. According to Dr Samia Sabri, a cornea specialist at Cairo University, a law which regulates only cornea transplants has been in effect since 1963, but it is not easy to find donors.

“Even with this, we rarely find cornea donors,” Dr Sabri said. “This makes blindness inevitable for many patients.” Currently, 5,000 patients are waiting to receive corneas.

Cultural heritage

Part of the problem is that the culture of donating is not widespread and the sanctity of the human body is deeply rooted in Egypt’s culture. The pharaohs, for example, used to mummify the dead and put them in a golden sarcophagus.

But recently, the Mufti, who issues edicts to the predominantly Muslim population, announced plans to donate his own organs after his death to encourage others to do so.

“We are dealing with the cultural heritage of millennia,” said Magda Mustafa, a psychology professor from Helwan University. “People need to understand that by donating organs, they save the lives of others.”

There are also structural issues, say experts, including transport and communications networks. According to Sabri, a cornea is good only for three hours after it is taken from a dead donor.

Mohamed Fathi, a liver professor from Ain Shams, Egypt’s second largest university, says the same applies to human livers. “The government must improve the roads and buy helicopters to take organs from dead persons - particularly those who die in road accidents - to hospitals,” he said.

Egypt also lacks transplant specialists. According to Rifaat Kamel, a member of the Cabinet-affiliated Higher Organ Transplant Panel, there are only 10-20 such experts in the country. “This is not enough given the huge demand,” he said.

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