HomeArticlesThe thriller that caused hundreds of organ donations

The thriller that caused hundreds of organ donations

Why languish in illness when the poor could be used to help you live long and prosper? A dubious advertisement recently advocated.

A “blatant” activity, which has upset countless people working in the transplantation of human organs industry, has had an unintended consequence: it has led to an almost 40% increase in donor registrations, according to the Organ Donor Foundation of South Africa (ODF).

Towards the end of March, Capetonians were handed flyers, which were also doing rounds on the internet, advertising “healthy, reliable and fully tested” human organs that could be “sourced within 168 hours”.

Hearts were on sale for just over R1.5-million, kidneys for R3.5-million and a pair of eyeballs for R20000. “Life is a gift that you deserve. So why languish in poor health when the poor could be used to help you live long and prosper?” the pamphlet read.

The New Day Clinic in Cape Town, which provided a cellphone number, offered a “hassle-free experience” along with “an unlimited supply” of organs.

The ODF was inundated with calls, emails and social media comments about the clinic. When the organisation investigated the clinic, it found it was an elaborate ploy to advertise the movie Bypass, South Africa’s first medical thriller.

“The clinic is a hoax, but the underlying issue at hand is very real,” says Bypass spokesperson Cara Fowler.

The campaign set out to promote the film and to illuminate the dark underworld of organ trafficking in South Africa and the rest of Africa, she says.

But the macabre trick has paid off.

ODF’s director of communications, Joost Vermeulen, who issued a press statement after its investigation, says there were 620 donor registrations in the week following the media release – 38% more than the organisation normally receives in a week.

There is a dire need for organ donors, says the foundation’s executive director, Samantha Nicholls.

The ODF collates an annual list of people waiting for transplants and those who have been helped. According to its records, only 12.5% of needy recipients in 2015 received an organ. There are about 4?800 adults and children on the list.

A 2007 World Health Organisation report revealed that a shortage of organs globally has led to the development of an international illegal organ trade that exploits the poorest.

Although Nicholls says the foundation is not aware of any current illegal organ trafficking in the country, Bypass director Shane Vermooten says his film, which will be released on May 12, is inspired by true events.

In November 2010, Saint Augustine’s Hospital in Durban pleaded guilty to having knowingly allowed its employees to be used in an organ trafficking scheme.

The hospital admitted that 109 illegal kidney transplants took place at the facility between 2001 and 2003, according to a case analysis published in the Medical Law Review journal in 2011. Five of the transplants involved the removal of kidneys from minors.

The syndicate lured desperate people into South Africa. Once in the country, buyers, who were mostly from Israel, would receive a kidney from a willing donor for about R1.4-million each.

Vermooten, who is now working with the ODF to advocate for donor registrations, says he was compelled to do so by the secrecy of these illegal operations, which often happen in well-established hospitals.

In 2010, the World Health Organisation estimated that 11?000 organs were sold on the black market. This amounts to one organ every hour, every day of the year.

Vermooten explains: “When you ask people if they think the value of each human life is equal, they will always say yes.

“But here we see a world in which the poor are for sale and the rich can buy them.”

Click here to register as an organ donor. 

Joan van Dyk was a health journalist, senior health journalist and news editor at Bhekisisa between 2017 and 2023.