Hoaxes can be Harmful!

From: mhollowa@nyx10.cs.du.edu (Michael Holloway)
Newsgroups: alt.folklore.urban
Subject: Re: Stolen Kidney UL
Date: 16 Aug 1994 14:09:11 -0600

This author seems to have either made up the story, or greatly embellished a story of payment for live kidney donation for the sake of a gruesome sensational tale. The British law making the sale of organs illegal was not prompted by forcible removal of organs but by the desire to keep India's practice of payment for live kidney donation from spreading. Its similar to laws in most western countries now.

The belief that you can take an organ from anyone off the street and put it anywhere is extremely ignorant and extremely harmful. Urban legends of "organ theft" make transplantation appear gruesome and is a major cause of lost donations. Potential transplant patients are dying because some asshole thought an "organ theft" story was entertaining. Anyone interested in more information is invited to read the bit.listserv.transplant FAQ.

Mike Holloway

Archive-name: medicine/transplant-faq/part1
This FAQ is archived at rtfm.mit.edu and available by gopher or ftp under

Transplant and organ donation myths

As with any new technology, rumors, myths and misunderstandings about organ transplantation are wide spread. Frustration produced by the high cost, the effect of the organ donor shortage, and the unavailability of transplantation throughout most of the rest of the world have probably contributed to this. Since rumors can often be more entertaining than the truth, tabloid media will often pick up and help spread them, despite the great harm they cause. Urban legends about organ transplantation are uniquely dangerous since organ transplantation can not succeed without the participation and support of the majority of the population. Bad press, urban legends, even fiction portraying organ transplantation as somehow evil, all have prevented full support for donation and led to the death of people who might otherwise be leading productive and happy lives now.

Another factor fueling the proliferation of myths is the unfortunate institution in India of payment for unrelated live kidney donation that preys on the poor in that country. While it may be true that the Indian medical community is not required to abide by western standards of ethics, neither is the US medical community required to interact with them, train their physicians, publish their research, etc. Its past time that the US medical community started taking visible responsibility for influencing transplantation ethics in foreign countries.

Mani, M.K., Renal Transplantation in India. (1992) Transplantation Proceedings,

Kott, Andrea., Organ Procurement Programs in State of Emergency. Medical World News
Feb 1992, v33n2, p. 15-16

The black market myth:

In all the time that the rumors of a black market, kidnapping and murder of children, organ-swiping, and other atrocities have been circulating (since at least 1982), there has never been any evidence to substantiate any of them.
Any rumor regarding a black market in organs, or organ piracy, needs to be evaluated in light of the necessity of matching the organ and recipient in order to avoid rejection by the recipient's immune system. One can not take any old organ and just put it anywhere you please. A rather complex system has been set up in the US to handle matching and distribution. Its unlikely that any number of evil people in the US or abroad will be able to duplicate such a system in secret. Adding these simple facts with the necessity of having many highly skilled medical professionals involved, along with modern medical facilities and support, makes it plain why rumors of the involvement of murder, violence and organized crime in organ procurement can not be given any credence.

These stories have done great damage to the public's appreciation of the need for organ donation.

For reference see "Organ Trafficking Myths", a paper by Todd Leventhal, USIA Senior Policy Officer, and "UNOS paper on organ theft myths", available through the Yale biomedical gopher (see above).

The Latin American baby snatching myth

These myths have been traced back to at least 1986 when Pravda in the Soviet Union carried allegations of children being taken to the US for adoption and then being murdered for their organs. There are several variations and they've become quite popular in countries where the civil unrest they foster tends to favor one political or military faction. As described above, all of them require an ignorance of what's involved in transplantation. No evidence is ever produced, just the assertion that its being investigated.

Within the last two years some individuals concerned about human rights violations in Latin-America have become infatuated with these rumors, apparently because one Central-American government official or another had told them that they were true, though again no evidence is produced. This is very unfortunate since Amnesty International has started to quote some of the more irresponsible writings on the subject.

Further information is available from Todd Leventhal at the US Information Agency.

tleventh@usia.gov Phone: (202)619-5673. Fax: (202)205-0655.
They've been following the body parts rumors for seven years.

References and additional information:

Update, May 1994 (also available from Todd Leventhal tleventh@usia.gov and the Yale
biomedical gopher after 6/1/94)

Pierce, Burdick face accusers in baby parts allegations, UNOS Update, June 1993
(available at the Yale biomedical gopher)

UNOS Fights 'Baby Parts' Rumor in Geneva. UNOS Update, May 1994

Organ Trafficking perspective from UNOS, UNOS press release available from UNOS and
soon to be posted at the Yale biomedical gopher site.

Foreigners Attacked in Guatemala. New York Times, 4/5/94, pg. A10.

Holden, Constance. Curbing Soviet Disinformation. Science Nov 4, 1988, v242, p. 665