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Egypt to Clamp Down on Rampant Illegal Organ Trade

Soheila, an Egyptian village housewife, traded her kidney for $2,185 to pay off debt – the best option the desperate mother of three could find to keep food on the family table. The 32-year-old from the fertile Nile Delta region is one of many people caught up in a thriving trade for illegal organs in Egypt, where there is no legal path to transplants.

Donation is allowed in practice only in very limited circumstances. But conservative Egypt, one of the world’s biggest organ-trade hubs, is now working on legislation to legalize transplants from brain dead donors and hopes the new law will cut back on demand for illicit organs.

“Giving my kidney is better than working in ‘furnished apartments,’” Soheila told an Egyptian transplant advocacy group, using a euphemism for prostitution. “This is against my dignity and I wouldn’t want to go and do such things.

“I didn’t want to do [anything religiously wrong] and steal for money. There was no other way to get such money so I decided to give my kidney,” she told the Coalition for Organ Failure Solution in a testimony posted on the group’s website.

Eighteen other Islamic countries, including staunchly conservative Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, are more liberal than Egypt on transplants, allowing operations from dead donors, said lawmaker Hamdy al-Sayed, who drafted the law in Egypt.

Egypt has no transplant laws, although in practice living kin can legally donate a kidney and portions of their liver. It also does not recognize brain death, a matter up for debate in Muslim religious circles and among conservatives. But the World Health Organization said Cairo has agreed to the need for both.

Most of Egypt’s commercial living kidney donors are young and male, and later regret selling their organs. Nearly four in five face worsening health after the transplant, and the money they earn is gone within five months, according to WHO.

Commercial living donors, mainly the poor and vulnerable, are thought to supply 10 percent of the world’s kidneys, WHO says. It has estimated the price of a kidney in Egypt at $1,700-$2,700.

Egypt’s parliament is due to vote in the next few weeks on a law that would legalize transplants from brain dead donors and regulate organ donations from the living, 23Sayed said.

“We cannot stop organ trading … unless there is a law that criminalizes illegal organ trading,” said Alaa Ghannam, director of the health program in the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “This law is a positive step forward.”

The law, which in previous years has failed to make it onto the parliamentary agenda, now has the blessing of President Hosni Mubarak, who told parliament’s opening session that he hoped to reach a resolution on the matter.

The law would establish a formal organ waiting list and would bar financial rewards for organ donations. Doctors caught performing illegal transplants may face up to 15 years in jail.

To avoid controversy in Egypt, where sectarian tensions sometimes erupt between Muslims and minority Christians, the law would bar transplants across faiths and between Egyptians and non-Egyptians, said Sayed, the law’s author.

If the law passes, the number of legal transplants performed annually in Egypt could surge to roughly 40,000 from just 1,000 now, he said.

Egypt’s Mansoura University Hospital, the country’s premier transplant center and a top trauma centre, says it already has the capacity to perform thousands more transplants a year.

“Once the law is approved, we can start work the next day,” said Mohamed Abdel Wahab, a gastroenterologist who works on liver transplants at Mansoura Hospital.

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