Guangdong launches organ donation scheme

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 April, 2010, 12:00am

Guangdong has launched a pilot organ donation scheme in 10 cities which it is hoped will lead to a nationwide revamp of the mainland's heavily criticised transplant industry.

Xu Huozhou, deputy head of the Guangdong Red Cross, told Xinhua donors could apply in writing to the committee's donation office, and their information and that of transplant recipients would be kept in a database the committee managed.

The scheme aims to address several issues troubling the mainland's transplant industry. Doctors perform 11,000 transplants a year, second only to the number performed in the US. However, demand far outstrips supply, with 1.5 million patients waiting for transplants every year.

Despite the fast-growing market for organs, the mainland has no mechanism for donation by people other than a patient's relatives.

Deputy Health Minister Huang Jiefu, a renowned liver transplant surgeon, has said that most organs are from executed prisoners. The rest supposedly come from donations by blood relatives.

While the mainland has never disclosed the number of prisoners executed every year, most experts, including those from Amnesty International, put the figure at around 1,700. Given the huge disparity and the fact that voluntary donations are almost unheard of, many suspect illegal trading of organs.

Huang admitted as much in an interview with foreign media last month.

Mainland regulations only allow donations by blood relatives, but illegal organ traders often cheat by changing a donor's identity to that of a fictitious relative.

Xinhua quoted Liao Xinbo, deputy head of Guangdong's health department, as saying that 2,034 Guangdong patients received transplants in 2004 but the number dropped to 1,118 last year.

A special office in charge of the pilot scheme started operation in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and eight other Guangdong cities on Tuesday, the Guangzhou Daily reported yesterday. It is jointly run by the Ministry of Health and the Red Cross Society of China. The non-governmental organisation will help supervise and facilitate organ donation, distribution and transplants.

Xu, of the Guangdong Red Cross, told Xinhua a provincial human organ donation committee had been set up and would work with transplant experts.

Voluntary organ donation is rare on the mainland because of superstition and a traditional belief in the need to keep bodies whole out of respect for the dead.

Huang said the nation desperately needed to establish a regulated organ donation mechanism. 'With demand for organ donation growing rapidly and the advancement of transplant technology, the shortage of donated organs has kept development of China's organ transplant at a bottleneck. There are about one million patients suffering from kidney failure and 300,000 others with liver failure, but only an extremely small fraction of them can get a second chance at life,' he said.

Lack of regulation has led to widespread organ trafficking.

The ministry is set to change the regulations to open up more sources of organs, and may categorise a person with brain death as dead, allowing families to donate their organs.

A 55-year-old retired Beijing engineer who received a liver transplant in 2003 and who works with other patients, sharing information about organ donation, welcomed the pilot scheme.

'This is good news for many patients and I hope it can be introduced nationwide as soon as possible,' he said. 'Over 95 per cent of the donated organs come from executed prisoners. A patient in Beijing pays 100,000 to 200,000 yuan to the hospital for a liver. It's cheaper for a kidney. About 50,000 to 100,000 yuan goes to relatives of the prisoners.

'Each hospital has their own channels to get organs.'

He said black-market organ trading was still rampant, with part of a liver selling for 20,000 to 30,000 yuan, or up to HK$34,000.

Dr Huo Feng , a surgeon at the General Hospital of the Guangdong Military Command, said the scheme was a big step in the right direction, which might, over time, open up new sources of donated organs. 'It might take years for China's organs to come mainly from voluntary donors because of traditional belief and superstition, but it's a very important start for government and relevant bodies to start education that might lead to a change of attitude,' Huo said.

Price to pay

Most donated organs come from prisoners who have been executed

A patient in Beijing buying a liver might pay up to, in yuan: 200,000