Currently, there is a universal shortage of organs available for transplant; as a result of the automatic operations of the free market, an international organ trade (featuring both legal and illegal components) is in the process of developing and expanding. Organ transplantation is a medical procedure that is practiced in the majority of countries around the world that possess sufficient technology and scientific knowledge to be able to do so. However, depending on the cost of healthcare and the general availability of organs, there will always be, given the present models, certain patients who will be unable to access transplant organs, even when these organs are necessary for their continued survival as is often the case. This developing industry has been acknowledged by the international community as a serious health policy issue, but because of the lack of data on the subject, information about the international organ trade, or even the mere fact of its existence, is not widely known.
As a result of this evident lack of awareness, a study was undertaken during July and August of 2006 in order to retrieve information relevant to the international organ trade. Multiple research methods, such as reference to academic articles and using online database services, were employed, but it was eventually decided that media reports would become a significant contributor to the information gathered, due to the paucity of other reliable information available. After conducting the search, 309 documents (largely consisting of media coverage of the topic, along with journal entries and some other documents) were dubbed to contain relevant information, although, as expected, there was a significant lack of quantitative data.
The study conducted was found to have gathered important information pertaining to what is generally known as “transplant tourism”. This term is used to describe the situation where people cross national boundaries in order to become the recipients of transplant organs, which may or may not have been legally obtained. It also refers to the purchase and sale of organs as well as other commercial elements of organ transplantation, such as transport and sometimes bribery. The internet was found to have been used as a lure to attract foreign transplant patients, with some sites offering all-inclusive “transplant packages”. On the Chinese island of Taiwan, it was discovered that out of 118 transplant patients, only 69 had undergone an operation facilitated by qualified doctors, and allegations that some Middle Eastern embassy officials facilitated overseas transplants were also brought to light, in an indication of the surprisingly widespread nature of illegal organ trading and transplants. It was also acknowledged that there are certain countries which use the treatment of foreign patients as a means of promoting further economic development, although the information surrounding this area was typically vague.