DESPERATE Australians may be going overseas for illegal organ transplants in greater numbers than first thought.

Official statistics show just a handful of people each year go overseas for a kidney transplant but a new survey indicates the real numbers may be a lot higher.

To get a more accurate picture, Transplantation Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) president-elect Toby Coates surveyed members of the transplant community to see how many had dealt with patients who had overseas transplants.

The University of Adelaide professor said official statistics from ANZDATA suggested about 11 people at most had kidney transplants overseas each year, but Prof Coates said his survey showed the numbers were likely higher than this.

Between 2010 and 2014, there were 25 official cases but his research reported 30 cases.

While there were no numbers yet for 2017 and 2018, it’s likely official numbers will be lower than Prof Coates’ survey, which reported 28 cases between 2015 and 2018. The official numbers report just eight transplants in 2015 and 2016.

“It shows that it occurs more than officially reported and is perhaps more common than we thought,” Prof Coates told

Almost half of the close to 200 professionals he surveyed reported having direct experience of caring for someone who had a transplant overseas.

While some patients may have got legal transplants from friends or relatives, many were likely illegal transplants.

“The top three destinations for the organ transplants were China, then Philippines and then India” Prof Coates said.

Prof Coates, who is also the director of transplantation at Royal Adelaide Hospital, said about 70 per cent of those surveyed said they had discussed the option of going overseas with at least one patient during their career.

“Australians are travelling overseas for the purpose of organ transplantation and the main reason is people think they can get an organ transplant quicker,” he said.

While kidney patients tend to die at lower rates than other types of transplant patients, the kidney is one of the most in-demand organs.

The latest figures for June this year show almost 70 per cent of the 1430 people on the transplant waiting list at the time needed a new kidney.

This compares to lung (9 per cent), liver (8 per cent), heart (6 per cent), pancreas (4 per cent), pancreas islets (1 per cent) and intestine (0.4 per cent).

Despite making up a high percentage of those on the waiting list, figures from DonateLife show kidney transplants made up just 54 per cent of procedures in 2016. That year 61 per cent of patients needed a new kidney.

Sadly, eight of them died while on the list.

Demand for organs could also be a lot higher than waiting list numbers suggest as people need to have an expected 80 per cent chance of surviving for five years to even be listed. Some people also get removed if their health deteriorates.

The fact that people can be living donors, has made kidney transplants a lucrative illegal trade.

According to 2015 statistics put before the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, organ trading was one of the world’s top 10 illegal money-making activities, generating an estimated $1.2 billion in profits globally each year.

The committee is conducting an inquiry into human organ trafficking and organ transplant tourism, and is expected to put forward some recommendations soon.

Factors such as poverty, unemployment and lack of socio-economic opportunities have been identified as making people vulnerable to organ trafficking.

“They are taking organs from very poor people, it’s akin to a modern day form of slavery,” Prof Coates said of those who travelled overseas for organs.

He said patients were also taking a significant risk with their health.

“I don’t think people understand the consequences to their health, they think it’s going to be a quick fix,” Prof Coates said.

Many transplant patients have got fungal and bacterial infections, which require months of treatments. If not matched correctly, the person’s body can also reject the organ.

Prof Coates said he knew of at least one person who had contracted HIV after getting a transplant in China. “They were dead within six months,” he said.

While immigration controls, isolated location and strong regulations made it difficult for people to exploit those living in Australia, there has been one known case of organ trafficking in Australia.

In 2011, an elderly couple were alleged to have brought a woman from the Philippines to Australia promising her money and a working visa if she altruistically ‘donated’ her kidney. The woman changed her mind after arriving in Australia and the matter was referred to the Australian Federal Police. But the case was never prosecuted because the prospective recipient died.

Prof Coates said Australia’s organ transplant system should be supported so that people were not tempted to go overseas.

“It’s really not ethical and it’s not in people’s best interests.”