- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

I have heard once too often about the theft of human organs for sale as transplants.

There are many versions of this horror story. In one, Traveler Bob is drugged in a bar in Guatemala. He awakes with an incision in his side. One of his kidneys has been removed.

Babies and children disappear or are found dead, their organs harvested for transplants.

The variations are endless. The genre is so enduring that the State Department has a Web page debunking it — which doesn’t seem to matter. It keeps coming back.

Aside from being absurd, these tales have potentially serious consequences. According to a State Department report, the rumor turned deadly in Guatemala in 1994.

On March 29, 1994, an American tourist, June Weinstock, was attacked by a mob after someone accused her of abducting a Guatemalan boy in order to harvest his organs. Her arms were broken and she suffered internal injuries and severe head injuries.

These organ thefts don’t happen. They are like the miracle carburetor that gets 100 miles per gallon on water but was suppressed by General Motors: Impossible.

Why? Transplants only work between people who are very similar in blood type, tissue type and so on. Transplanting organs is not like swapping out a water pump on a late-model Toyota. Determining compatibility requires complex and extensive tests.

How you run these tests on Traveler Bob without his noticing is not obvious. Maybe the barmaid says, “You’re cute. Can I have a blood sample to remember you by?”

An additional question, more legal than technical, is what surgeons, and what hospitals, are going to risk serious jail time, disbarment from the medical profession or, in the case of a hospital, closure to perform a highly conspicuous operation?

A transplant requires a lot of follow-up treatment. You are dying of liver failure in Kansas, you disappear for a few weeks, and come back with a new liver and ask for immunosuppressant therapy. Your doctor asks, as any would, “Who did your surgery? May I see your medical records?” Uh, ah, heh heh … arg.

Transplants are not something you do in a garage. “After the organs have been extracted from a donor, an extremely delicate and complex procedure that involves a transplant surgeon and support staff including an anesthesiologist, attending surgeons, and operating room nurses, the organs must be transported as rapidly as possible, typically by helicopter or airplane, to the hospitals where the transplants will occur,” the State Department notes.

“Before transporting the donor organ, special preservation solutions must be infused into it. Proper insulation and temperature-controlled packaging including adequate ice or refrigeration must be used to protect the organ during shipment. Absolute sterile conditions must be maintained for the organ to remain viable for transplant.”

Exactly the sort of thing you would do in a hotel room in Nicaragua. Yet I meet people all the time who believe this stuff. The story has appeared hundreds of times in (what are thought to be) reputable media.

I have a brilliant idea. When any media outlet hears a tale of unspeakable evil involving science or technology, it should first check to see whether the thing is possible. What a concept.

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