The Global Kidney Exchange Programme

In my WSJ review of Al Roth’s excellent book Who Gets What—and Why I wrote about Roth’s proposal to extend the idea of kidney swaps globally:

It’s often the case that a living donor is willing to give a kidney to a loved one, but the loved one can’t accept it because of immunity mismatch. But if a pair of such mismatched donors could be found (call them A and A´ and B and B´), then perhaps a match could be found by a crisscross pairing: Donor A could give to recipient B´ and donor B could give to recipient A´, thus solving the mismatch problem and saving lives.

…Today such multi-way exchanges are becoming common….Mr. Roth, however, wants to go further….why not open U.S. transplants to the world? Imagine that A and A´ are Nigerian while B and B´ are American. Nigeria has virtually no transplant surgery or dialysis available, so in Nigeria patient A’ will die for certain. But if we offered a free transplant to him, and received a kidney for an American patient in return, two lives would be saved.

The plan sounds noble but expensive. Yet remember, Mr. Roth says, “removing an American patient from dialysis saves Medicare a quarter of a million dollars. That’s more than enough to finance two kidney transplants.” So offering a free transplant to the Nigerian patient can save money and lives.

It’s hard to think of a better example of gains from trade (or a better PR coup for the U.S. on the world stage).

Recently, Rees et al., (including Roth) announced the first such global kidney exchange:

We report the 1‐year experience of an initial Filipino pair, whose recipient was transplanted in the United states with an American donor’s kidney at no cost to him. The Filipino donor donated to an American in the United States through a kidney exchange chain. Follow‐up care and medications in the Philippines were supported by funds from the United States. We show that the logistical obstacles in this approach, although considerable, are surmountable.

Naturally, some people aren’t happy because of “ethical” objections. Minerva, Savulescu and Peter Singer write in defense of the program:

Lurking behind all the arguments against the GKE is the assumption that people who are poor are incapable of autonomous choices. So, if they appear to choose to act in ways that benefit not only themselves, but people in HICs, they must have been coerced, exploited, or commodified.

…Poverty does not necessarily make a person unable to choose to donate a kidney to a loved one, nor does it make someone incapable of weighing the pros and cons of an option like that offered by the GKE. Poverty does narrow down the options available to people, and often forces them to settle for an option that is not as good as a wealthy person would choose. That, however, is irrelevant to the ethics of the GKE if that programme provides a better option to patients in LMICs who need a kidney than any other option currently available to them.

…It would be tragic if such misguided objections were to prevent the GKE from realising its potential to reduce suffering and save the lives of rich and poor patients alike.

Hat tip: Frank McCormick.


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