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What you need to know about human organ trafficking
Not all organs are from reputable sources. There is a worldwide market, and many are obtained in some pretty shady ways.
There's that urban legend. You go to dinner with a good looking stranger, go back to their hotel room or yours, have a drink, and pass out. The next thing you know, you are in the bathtub, naked, covered in ice, with a poorly stitched side, and a phone nearby with a note attached: Seek emergency medical care right away. According to medical anthropologist Nancy Scherper-Hughes, the truth is different, but is just as sinister and macabre, and tells us something about the state of global affairs today.
Scherper-Hughes is professor of medical anthropology at University of California Berkeley and co-founder and Director of Organs Watch, a medical human rights project. She is also an advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO) on issues related to global transplantation and has worked on the problem of human organ and tissue trafficking for a full decade. Yes, the illegal organ trade is real, and it may be happening at a hospital near you. Encapsulated within is a travesty of justice, an argument over global equality, and the dark, secretive underbelly of medical science, which few of us have dared to peak at. Today, Scherper-Hughes is the director of Organ's Watch, a nonprofit that keeps track of global organ trafficking. She is also the chair of Berkeley's doctoral program in medical anthropology.
The truth is, organ trafficking is a reality in many parts of the world. Documented cases have shown up in Indonesia, China, India, South Africa, Brazil, and many other countries. The reason? The demand for organ transplants, especially kidney transplants, is just so high. 123,000 men, women, and children are on the organ donor's list right now. An average of 25 will die each day. As a result, there is a huge scramble to find organs, legitimate or otherwise.
11,000 human organs were obtained on the black market in 2010, according to the WHO. That organization states that an organ is sold every hour, each day, every day of the year. Scheper-Hughes calls the demand for human body parts—organs and tissues—“insatiable." According to her, it's easier to trade in human body parts once they have been dehumanized through the processes of organ and tissue harvesting.
This high demand for kidney transplants has set up a depressing yet all too familiar dynamic: a trail of organ harvesting flowing from poor to rich in the United States, and global South to global North. The poorest slums of the world supply kidneys, for instance, to donors in the U.S., Europe, UK, Israel, and Canada. The UN is even looking into reports that ISIS, the wealthiest terrorist group ever, may be in the business of selling its victim's organs. UN special envoy Nickolay Mladenov said that the matter is being investigated. Meanwhile, Scherper-Hughes says organ trafficking in wartime, particularly in dirty wars or those with undisciplined armies, is not uncommon.
Her life reads like that of a secret agent's. The anthropologist has posed as a medical doctor in countries all over the world in order to investigate organ trafficking. She says, some of the U.S.'s topmost medical facilities have been caught with illegally trafficked organs. Scherper-Hughes has tracked organs to hospitals and medical centers in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, among other places. At one point, she found herself across the table from a group of organ transplant surgeons at a top Philadelphia hospital. The 60 year-old showed these physicians a sixty page report of interviews from a labyrinthine trail of buyers, sellers, and middlemen, stretching across the world, showing just where the kidneys these doctors were implanting came from. The WHO estimates that one-fifth of all transplanted kidneys, or 70,000 of them, are trafficked each year.
Organized crime syndicates work behind the scenes. Their methods are varied. Sometimes they trick the person into giving up the organ. For instance, there are cases where the so-called patient is treated for a sickness they don't have, and the traffickers make off with the organ. Or they force the person into giving it. But oftentimes, it is a cash payout that draws people out. There are cases where the person decides to sell their organ, say a kidney or a section of liver, but gets cheated, ending up with a much lower amount than what they were promised beforehand.
From there, the kidney, or whatever it is, goes to organ brokers, who can get $150,000 per transplant or more. $200,000 is not uncommon. Meanwhile, the donor usually only gets around $5,000. These brokers cross international lines to find “broker-friendly" hospitals in the U.S. and other developed nations. Two surgeons in the room with Scherper-Hughes in Philadelphia were implicated. The meeting ended poorly. The medical anthropologist was tossed out. The follow-up internal investigation turned up nothing. Scherper-Hughes believes many doctors are either involved, ignore where the organ came from, don't ask questions, or are in denial. Let's look at a few documented cases of organ trafficking.
Chinese hospitals are of particular concern. In China in 2006, a hospital run by the state communist party was exposed for trafficking the organs of prisoners of conscience, i.e. forced organ harvesting. 10,000 transplantable organs are sold out of China each year, a market worth $1 billion, despite the fact that few donors are on official lists. This has become the subject of a documentary: “Human Harvest: China's Organ Trafficking." International investigators like David Matas and David Kilgour cite evidence that tens of thousands have been killed in China by Chinese officials to support illegal organ trafficking. The Chinese communist party has denied all allegations of transplant operations, claiming that neither transplant centers nor or an organ harvesting program exists.
Al Jazeera, in February of this year, helped break up a three person trafficking ring in Indonesia. Here villagers in West Java, around 30 individuals, had sold their kidneys to the tune of $5,000 apiece. Other stories include a child in China who had his eyes cut out, possibly for the corneas, an African girl who was kidnapped and rescued in the UK before her organs could be harvested, and in America, the dizzying case of Kendrick Johnson. His death was deemed a freak accident in the school gym — they said the boy suffocated in a rolled up gym mat. Loved ones remained skeptical, however. After a protracted fight, his parents finally got a court order. They had the body exhumed and independently autopsied. During the autopsy, the medical examiner discovered something terrifying. The Georgia teen was found to have had all his organs removed and replaced with newspaper.
Although organ donation is regulated in the U.S., there are ways to beat the system via illegal trade. Corruptible funeral home directors forge death certificates and consent forms before the human remains are disposed of. In the developing world, people are kidnapped and used for their organs. Children sold into sexual slavery sometimes have their organs sold. And there are those in slums who give up their tissues, a piece of their liver, or their kidney, just to get their hands on a few hundred American dollars.
While Asia is certainly an area of concern, Scheper-Hughes has seen advertisements requesting organs in newspapers in Brazil, Moldova, and parts of Africa. She has also witnessed middlemen trawling the streets for donors in some countries holding wads of $100 bills. In China, one ad stated a kidney would get you $4,000 and a new iPad. The illegal kidney trade in Pakistan, driven by poverty conditions, yields a price of $1,000. Organ transplant tourism is a growing field, and here black market organs are often supplied.
The UN HUB or Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, has listed the organ trade as one of their top priorities. Someday 3D printed organs using stem cells will make donation obsolete. But human organ trafficking will continue to be a serious, global problem as long as global inequality remains unchanged, desperate people of affluence and those just as desperate financially tight — tight regulations or not — believe there are huge profits to be had. The urban legend is scary, if not a bit melodramatic. The reality, however, as it often is, is in some sense even more horrifying.
To find out more about illegal organ trafficking in China click here:
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.