When humankind fails, the best institutions save it from the brink. The Punjab Human Organ Transplantation Authority (PHOTA) is one fine example of how state institutions - founded on very noble and necessary grounds - can turn the tide in the battle against inhumanity.

Led by Director General Prof Dr Faisal Masood, ex-vice chancellor of King Edward Medical University, a small team of PHOTA has been tasked to saving maximum lives by fighting commercial trade and promoting the culture of organ donation in most ethical way possible.

“Our people need to understand that organ harvesting is an effective, yet complex, therapy for end-stage organ failure – a double-edged sword for both donor and recipient in illicit cases,” Prof Masood said from the PHOTA’s headquarters in Shadman.

Around 150,000 patients die in Pakistan from end-stage organ failure due to shortage of vital body parts every year. On the other hand, thousands of donors sell their organs to escape poverty while hundreds fall prey to organ traffickers.

Punjab has more grim and shameful stories of illicit clinics, corrupt doctors and international networks dealing in human flesh than any other province, with most illegal transplants taking place in Rawalpindi and Lahore.

But things are not the same as before Pakistan criminalised the trade and trafficking of human organs, tissues and bone marrow through Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Act 2010, and introduced 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs1 million.

According to the law, organ donation must be “voluntary, genuinely motivated, not under duress or coerced”: if a donor is not available within a patient’s immediate family (parents, siblings, spouse and offspring), then “a non-close living blood relative” can be a donor provided no financial consideration is involved.

What can be called the ‘unseen face’ of PHOTA is a Vigilance Cell, which operates covertly to curb the illegal practice of commercial organ trade. While PHOTA cannot directly raid or seal the hospital/transplant center premises, it blows the whistle when discover any nefarious activity taking place, after which the Special Branch of Punjab Police or the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) carry out arrests.

 “Illegal organ trafficking is banned because it harms both the patient and the donor besides burdening the healthcare sector,” said Adnan Ahmad Bhatti, the head of Vigilance Cell, who has been in hot pursuit of gangs trafficking organs and is behind more than a dozen successful raids carried out across Punjab.

To his mind, foreigners seeking to visit Pakistan for healthcare purposes should be stopped at airports by placing visa restrictions.

Sharing his concern for the security of his team, he added the mafias behind the business of human organs are very strong.

Meanwhile, Punjab is at a new crossroads in promoting organ donation. While the number of illicit transplants has dropped, the number of potential donations leading to life-saving surgeries is not proportionally increasing.

 “Organ donation is the greatest gift — it is life,” said Dr Murtaza Haider, the Technical Director. “I encourage everyone to get on the list for organ donation. You can truly be a hero for someone,” he added.

Each donor can save as many as eight lives through organ donation, bring sight to others with cornea donations and improve yet another 75 lives or more through tissue donation. But, unfortunately, the deceased donor programme has been met with stony silence in Punjab.

Till date, the PHOTA has registered only a single deceased donor case of Zahida Bibi, from Faisalabad, who shared a gift of life with her son and a nephew in the shape of two kidneys. According to Bibi’s wish, her corneas were also used to restore the sights of two kids last December.

Each deceased donor receives official salutation and is buried with full honours.

Besides authorising and supervising all donations and transplants, the PHOTA also operates an Organ Procurement Cell (OPC) at Lahore General Hospital, where donated organs are preserved under ideal conditions. The PHOTA has made it quite easier to become part of the organ donation programme through their website: https://phota.punjab.gov.pk.

People can also report any suspicious activity regarding illegal organ trade to PHOTA, or lodge a complaint against transplant surgeons or centers.


The author is a Lahore-based

journalist and can be reached at khawajadaud@hotmail.com.