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Girl's organs removed after vacation death; family believes they may have been sold

A girl who died while vacationing in India was missing her internal organs when her body was returned to Britain, according to her parents who fear she may have been the victim of the illegal trade in human body parts.

But the hospital in India where her body was taken reportedly denied the girl's organs were harvested for sale, insisting they were removed for additional investigation as to the cause of death.

Gurkiren Kaur, 8, died moments after a doctor treating her for dehydration in India’s Punjab region gave her an injection two weeks ago, according to her family. 

A member of parliament in the girl’s home city of Birmingham, England, has demanded an international investigation into the case. Shabana Mahmood, the lawmaker, told ITV News she had raised the “deeply suspicious circumstances” of the case with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

The Birmingham Mail newspaper, which first reported the story, said the commercial trade of human organs remained big business in India, despite having been banned in 1994.

A local politician, who is a friend of the family, said there were "many unanswered questions" about Gurkiren's death and suggested it was "very possible" the girl was deliberately killed for her organs.

"It does happen in India, and since this case was first reported we have been contacted by other families who say their relatives have died and had organs removed without an explanation," Birmingham City Councillor Narinder Kooner said.

The state-owned hospital in Punjab where the girl’s first autopsy took place denied late Wednesday that her organs had been stolen, according to Indian media reports.

Vijay Sharda, Medical Superintendent of the Rajindra Hospital, told the Press Trust of India (PTI) that organs and tissue were sent for further examination, the English-language newspaper Deccan Herald reported.

He told the PTI that doctors attributed her death to a congenital heart defect for which she had already undergone surgery in the UK, according to the report.

Gurkiren was visiting India on her first overseas vacation when she became ill on April 2 with a mild case of dehydration, according to her family. After being given an injection at a clinic, her eyes rolled to the back of her head and she quickly became unresponsive, her parents said. 

Her mother, Amrit, and father, Santokh, said they agreed to allow the India hospital's doctors to perform a biopsy in order to establish a cause of death - as required by Indian law.

When the girl's body arrived back in the U.K., a British coroner called Gurkiren's parents to say it was missing the organs needed to investigate her cause of death, the parents said. It is common practice in Britain for an autopsy to be carried out in U.K. on citizens who die overseas.

Gurkiren's parents say the Indian clinic's doctor refused to tell them what had been in the injection.

Her mother Amrit, who is a postal worker, told ITV News: "I said, ‘What is the injection for? She doesn't need an injection she just needs a saline drip for half an hour or 45 minutes.’ He didn't answer me at all he just gave me a blank look and totally ignored me and just inserted the needle into a syringe and as soon as he pushed it in her neck flipped backwards.

"Her eyes rolled over and she turned a grayish-whitish color. She just blinked twice and her mouth was left open."

The parents insist they have been unable to get information about that happened to their daughter or the whereabouts of her organs.

Speaking earlier, Kooner said the case raised many questions.

"Did the clinic doctor have her organs in mind when he gave her this injection?" she asked. "Or was she the victim of medical incompetence who then had the organs removed by somebody at the hospital? What has happened to these organs? We just don’t know."

Kooner conceded that it was possible the girl had been the victim of a series of individual acts of incompetence, but added: "Gurkiren was a happy, healthy girl who was laughing and joking until this injection. We will never be able to investigate the cause of her death until these organs are found."

Art Caplan, co-chairman of a 2009 United Nations task force on organ trafficking, said that the evidence in Gurkiren’s case doesn’t point to organ theft.

“I’m skeptical,” said Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Whenever I see somebody say that somebody killed somebody for parts, I’m skeptical.”

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 106,000 organs were transplanted globally in 2010. That included about 10,000 kidneys that were illegally obtained, the agency said.

Organ transplant is actually a complex effort that involves precise coordination to be successful. Blood and tissue types of both donor and recipient must match, the size of the organs must be compatible and the organs must be preserved after death, Caplan notes. In this child’s case, the timeline doesn’t suggest that any of that would have happened.

“Was she on life support?” he said. “Do you have container to put the organs in? This girl is missing internal organs, but it doesn’t add up to that.”

In a statement, Britain’s Foreign Office said: "We can confirm the death of a British national in Punjab, India, on April 2. We are providing consular assistance in the case and cannot comment further."

A member of the Punjab Congress demanded an investigation into the case, according to the Hindustan Times.

"The death of Gurkiren Kaur… brings to the fore the crumbled and medieval-type healthcare system in Punjab," state Congress spokesman Sukhpal Singh Khaira told the newspaper, adding that the girl has been “subjected to inhuman autopsy at a government hospital."

In addition to the black market for organs, there is a legitimate global trade in human tissue taken from bodies - supposedly with the prior consent of the deceased.

A recent investigation found that, in the United States, an estimated two million products derived from human tissue are sold each year, a figure that has doubled over the past decade.

Mark Gough, reporter with NBC News' partner ITV News, contributed to this report.

Related: Body wranglers at work: Inside the global trade in human corpses