Ukraine becomes Europe’s capital of organ trafficking

With Ukraine’s medical infrastructure and legislation making vital transplant organs hard to come by, the illegal trade in human organs is thriving as desperate people turn to the black market.

­The authorities are struggling to bring the problem under control, but their room for maneuver is restricted by Ukrainian legislation on transplants.

In Russia and many other countries, doctors are free to use the organs of deceased people to save lives unless there is a written statement from a person prohibiting it. In Ukraine, however, the use of a dead person’s organs is allowed only with the permission of the relatives.  This has led to the creation of a huge black donor-market.

Elena's father Boris died in March last year. A few months later, she received a surprising call from the local police.

“The police told me that my father’s eyes were removed from his body to be sold as if they were from a donor. We didn’t notice anything at the funeral, as those who did it disguised their actions. I was told that the morgue’s employees did that, not the doctors. And that a total of 190 dead had had their organs removed,” Elena reveals.

Tissue from eyes can be used for up to a week after death, and is vital in helping those in need of surgery.

“Such surgery can be performed by any eye surgeon. If there was a State tissue bank, then the specialist would take the available cornea from there and transplant it to a person. But Ukraine has no tissue bank. That’s why those in need either go abroad, or turn to illegal surgeons,” Sergey Rykov, head ophthalmologist of Ukraine's Health Ministry, explains.

The Ukrainian authorities have launched an investigation into the case of Elena’s father, which for some reason has become secret.

From shipping the bones of the dead abroad to unlawfully extracting stem cells from newborns – lately, the illegal donor market has been thriving in Ukraine.

Several top specialists of Ukraine's leading surgery institute are currently on trial, accused of conducting more than 50 illegal donor surgeries. Over the past decade, cases like this have turned Kiev into Europe's capital of illegal transplants.

Ukrainian doctors are pushing hard to change the law which has so restricted life-saving transplant operations, and are attempting to create a unified State tissue bank. This, they say, will stop illegal surgeries for good.  However, even optimists say this may take years.