Bangladesh farmers cash in on kidneys

By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury in Asia Times Online

DHAKA – Mofidul Islam, a 23-year-old Bangladeshi farmer unable to pay a series of loans worth about US$800, took the advice of an acquaintance from a nearby village to sell one of his kidneys and get in return at least 130,000 takas (US$1,728).

Islam, who was eventually operated on at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University in Dhaka, is part of a growing scandal that involves poor farmers, particularly from the far north part of Bangladesh where he comes from, and involves operations in India and as far afield as Singapore as well as in Dhaka.

“I accepted the idea as not only would it help me repay the loans, it will also provide me with money to buy some land of my own,” said Islam, who works land in Joypurhat district. “Two and a half years later, I am still healthy and have no problems in doing my daily activities,” said Mofidul. He was unaware that the whole business of selling human organs is illegal and that violation of the law can lead to jail terms of three to seven years and a 300,000 takas fine – not to mention that he will have to maintain a pretty healthy lifestyle to keep going into middle age on his remaining cluster of nephrons.

Police at one station in Joypurhat have identified at least 42 cases where impoverished farmers have sold their kidneys. The leading Bengali daily, Prothom Alo, has reported that at least 200 villagers had sold off their body parts. The news has awakened the health sector authorities in Bangladesh to a trade that has been going on unabatedly under their very noses over the past five years.

“We are still investigating,” told Fazlul Karim, the officer-in-charge of Kalai Police Station in Joypurhat, told Asia Times Online. On “humanitarian grounds”, action had not been taken against the individuals who had sold their body parts.

So far, Islam may consider himself one of the more lucky donors. Mehdi Hasan, another 23-year-old from the same area, was persuaded to sell his kidney at 200,000 takas. However, once in Dhaka, he was persuaded into selling a part of his liver at 300,000 takas to LabAid hospital on May 8.

Doctors, he said, had assured him that this part of his organ would grow back – “I was unaware how this organ functions in my body,” he said. After the operation, the patient’s brother gave him 150,000 takas while the brokers who arranged the deal did not pay him anything.

Police have so far arrested around seven people involved in the body organ racket including brokers. Six others have absconded, said Fazlul Karim. “The racket has been operating … since 2006,” said Karim, who added that the price of kidneys varied from 130,000 takas to as high as 400,000 takas.

Police arrested the alleged ring leader Tareque Azim – who had guided Islam through the Dhaka hospital network to his eventual operation – on September 8. Azim developed the idea in 2006 after looking for a kidney for his cousin in Canada. A management graduate from Khulna BL College, in the southwest of Bangladesh, Azim has denied involvement in any trade although he did mention to various media that Joypurhat is a “kidney warehouse”.

Police have collected names of medical institutions, doctors and nurses in Dhaka involved in the racket. They have also identified cases where some victims were made to pose as relatives of patients and flown abroad to donate organs. “One such case was of Abdus Sattar, who later became a broker,” said Karim. Sattar had flown to Mount Elizabeth Hospital of Singapore. “He was also the first person to sell a kidney from Joypurhat district,” said Karim.

Azim told police that he often mediated between donors and patients through an outlet of Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Banani, Dhaka. Karim said kidney donors were also flown to hospitals in India.

On September 13, District Commissioner Ashok Kumar Biswas said the government and local administrations will take steps to raise awareness amongst the poor and landless people of rural areas where donors are found. He also pledged to rehabilitate those who have already sold their kidneys and liver.

A number of free health camps have been set up in areas at risk in the past few weeks, according to local civil surgeon Dr Mozammel Haque. The illegal world of human organs trade was valued at around $50 million in 2008, and involves a range of source countries. Due to extreme poverty and high profits, illegal body organ transplantation has risen in India and Pakistan over the past two decades.

Although India passed the Transplantation of Human Organs Act in 1994, illegal organ trafficking persists in the country. Last month, India passed the Transplantation of Human Organs Amendment bill, which makes transplantation legal only “if donors [are] related to recipients in one of four permitted ways: as parents, children, siblings, or spouses”.

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is a senior staff writer at New Age in Dhaka. (Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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