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Iranians Question Organ Transplant Ban After Afghan Girl's Death

Iranian health minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, undated.
Iranian health minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, undated.

The death of a 12-year-old Afghan girl in Iran has prompted that country's health minister to publicly defend a national ban on organ transplants for foreigners that some were initially blaming for the tragedy.

Latifeh Rahmani died last week at a hospital in Shiraz, where she had reportedly been hospitalized for liver problems resulting from a genetic disorder, Wilson's disease, which causes dangerous accumulations of copper in the liver and other vital organs.

Latifeh's father was quoted by a hard-line website on August 19 as saying the girl died because doctors at a local hospital denied her organ transplant because she was an illegal immigrant.

In an interview a few days later with the semiofficial ISNA news agency, Latifeh's father said doctors at the hospital had first asked whether the family could afford the surgery.

"I told the doctors, 'Do the surgery, we will manage [the payment],'" he was quoted by ISNA as saying. "They said Tuesday. But on Tuesday they didn't operate on her; they said Saturday. But my daughter died on Thursday, August 19."

Iranian authorities in September 2014 announced a ban on foreigners receiving Iranian organs via transplants in the country, citing long waiting lists for would-be recipients.

But doctors at the hospital in question, Namazi, and Iran's health minister rejected the idea that her nationality played a part, and said instead that Latifeh's quickly deteriorating health prevented her from receiving a liver transplant.

"Latifeh was hospitalized at the children's intensive-care unit, where she received medication and was examined for a liver transplant. But because of the quick progression of her disease, an organ transplant was not possible at all. She died because of a drop in her blood pressure and a heart attack," Saman Nikeghbalian, who works in the liver-transplant unit of Namazi, told local media.

"It is possible to transplant a part of the father or the mother's liver to the child," Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi said on August 22, "but because of the disease's progress, surgery was not possible."

'Careless' Reporting

Ghazizadeh Hashemi said Latifeh had received the best care and had been examined and treated by "the world's greatest surgeons."

"The death of Latifeh Rahmani was not at all because of a lack of an organ," he said, accusing the media of "carelessness" in reporting on her death in part because unnamed individuals are seeking to create tension between Iranians and Afghans, whom he called "our brothers and sisters."

He also defended the ban on foreign recipients, which was announced in September 2014.

"Regarding the organ transplant, we still believe the law banning organ transplant from Iranians to foreigners is for the preservation of the dignity of the people of our country, [so] we defend it," the health minister said.

In the past 10 years, he said, 608 foreigners have undergone organ transplants in Iran, where the sale of kidneys is legal.

Ghazizadeh Hashemi suggested the real number could be higher because "many foreigners have received organs through illegal and other paths."

He condemned what is sometimes dubbed "transplant tourism," long condemned by the World Health Organization and other international forums, in which frequently wealthy purchasers abroad bypass a country's laws on organ donation at the expense of the donors' home country.

"It is a disgrace for foreign nationals to be allowed to visit Iran and buy the organs of poor Iranians and transplant them," Ghazizadeh Hashemi told domestic media earlier this week, citing similar bans in other countries.

He also noted that he had himself issued "exceptions" in the past, but said, "We can't expand it, because it is not in the interests of our country."

A deputy chairman of the parliament's health commission, Mohammad Hossein Ghorbani, said that body will look into Rahmani's death and suggested a revision of the ban could be in order.

"If necessary, then there should be a revision of the law and hospitals should be given permission to address exceptions," Ghorbani said. "What matters to the medical staff is to save people's lives and exceptions should be taken into account."