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China announces a system for voluntary organ donors
Published on: 2009-08-27
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BEIJING — China has inaugurated a voluntary organ donor program, hoping to overhaul a system that now harvests a vast majority of its organs from black-market sellers and executed prisoners and leaves millions of ailing people without hope of getting transplants.

The new program, run by the national Red Cross Society with help from China’s Health Ministry, was reported by the state-run English-language newspaper China Daily on Wednesday. The newspaper quoted the vice minister of health, Huang Jiefu, as saying the goal was to create an organ donation system that “will benefit patients regardless of social status and wealth.”

At least one million people in China need organ transplants each year, but only about 10,000 receive them, according to government statistics. Dr. Huang said that most of those organs — as high as 65 percent, by some estimates — were taken from death-row inmates after their executions.

China does not publicly report execution figures, but Amnesty International estimates that 1,718 prisoners were put to death in 2008, the highest number of any nation. The government said last month that it planned to cut the number of executions to “an extremely small number” by changing criminal laws and issuing more suspended death sentences.

The practice of harvesting organs from executed Chinese convicts has been widely reported in the past, although it was only confirmed in 2005, by Dr. Huang, at a medical conference in Manila. The government has routinely denied other allegations that prisoners’ organs regularly found their way to the black market, often for sale to wealthy foreigners, and that executions were sometimes scheduled to coincide with the need for a specific organ.

At a news conference in Shanghai held Wednesday to unveil the new organ donation system, a transplant surgeon, Qian Jianmin, chief transplant surgeon with the Shanghai Huashan Hospital, was quoted by the newspaper as saying that the removal of organs from convicts was sometimes subject to corruption. Dr. Huang was quoted as saying that prisoners must give written consent for their organs to be used in transplants and that their rights are protected.

Nevertheless, he said, inmates “are definitely not a proper source for organ transplants.”

Patients also receive some organs, like livers and kidneys, from living relatives and loved ones. But many other organs are bought on the black market by those rich enough to afford them, despite a law that bans organ trafficking.

A black-market kidney can cost up to 200,000 renminbi, or about $29,300, the newspaper stated, plus transplant costs. Because so many people are desperate to receive transplants, corruption is a serious problem, and citizens can wait years before being matched with donors, if a donor is ever found.

It is almost unheard of for Chinese citizens to volunteer to donate their organs after death. Only about 130 people have pledged to donate their organs since 2003, the newspaper stated, quoting Chen Zhonghua, a professor at Tongji Hospital’s Institute of Organ Transplantation in Shanghai.

Dr. Chen recently told the southern China newspaper Nanfang Daily that transplant efforts were hampered not only by a lack of donors but also by the lack of a system to match organs with a person in need. As a result, he said, only a fraction of viable organs are used.

The new system will start as an experimental program in 10 cities, including Shanghai, and later will be rolled out nationwide. The details of the system are still being worked out, officials said.

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