Chinese health authorities urged to be more open in reporting organ transplant figures

Mainland figures show there were over 2,766 transplant cases last year and this could rise to 4,000 next year as more people become willing to donate upon death

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 1:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 6:25pm

A world health body has called on China to be more transparent over its organ donation figures.

This came as the country’s health experts revealed that there were over 2,766 cases involving 7,785 organs last year – and the figure could rise to 4,000 cases this year as more Chinese became willing to make donations upon death.

The 2015 figure, which was more than the total for 2013 and 2014, placed China first in Asia and third in the world – according to mainland health experts.

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The figures were revealed at an international conference – the International Congress of the Transplantation Society – which is currently under way in Hong Kong.

But global health officials attending the conference were cautious over the figures. “[The figures] seemed to us to be plausible ... [but] we have no way to verify a single statement,” said Jeremy Chapman, chairman of the Congress Scientific Programme Committee.

China has been criticised for using organs of executed prisoners for transplants, which is against the rules of the World Health Organisation-affiliated Transplantation Society.

China said it halted the practice in January last year.

The controversy prompted debate among doctors and health care workers about whether the congress should be hosted in Hong Kong.

“We admit that reform has been undertaken. We need to confirm there is a change in China and executed prisoners are no longer used as organ donors,” said Philip O’Connell, who chairs the congress.

O’Connell said China had to be transparent in reporting data.

Professor Jose Nunez, an advisor to the World Health Organisation, said China stopped reporting organ donation figures to the global health watchdog after 2010.

He asked the country to report data after that date.

“We are requesting the Chinese authorities to adopt transparency and open itself up to scrutiny,” Nunez said.

But he admitted that many countries – not only China – were not reporting data every year.

Dr Huang Jiefu, director of China’s human organ donation and transplantation committee, rejected the criticism.

“We are responsible for every figure we submitted. Every figure is true and every case can be traced back,” said Huang, who is also a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

“If the figures were wrong, who would donate organs? If [the figures were wrong], there is no hope for China’s organ transplant cause,” he told the Post.

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Huang, 70 and a former vice health minister, is attending the congress in Hong Kong and will make a presentation about China’s practice on Monday. The congress closes on Tuesday.

Regarding the accusation that China is not being open about its figures, Huang said it involved patients’ privacy and was a medical ethics issue.

“We can’t release details of the patients,” he said. “Actually the Unites States does not do this, nor does Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan.”

Huang said before 2010, the mainland reported transplant numbers to the WHO, but after 2010, it stopped doing so until last year when the country stopped using the organs of executed prisoners.

“In 2010 we kicked off a pilot programme calling on the public to donate organs voluntarily. So after that, there were two sources of organs – executed prisoners and citizens,” Huang said.

“We stopped reporting after 2010 because some people who donated organs did not want to be mixed in with executed prisoners.”

Huang said the number of organ transplant cases could rise to 4,000 this year.

“Our system has been built and our transplant drive is a new-born baby which is growing bigger and bigger,” he said. “We will definitely be the world’s second biggest country in terms of transplant cases this year, following the United States.”

Huang said more people now accepted that they could donate their organs after death. “I think it means our country has become more civilised,” he said.

The congress, which is held in alternate years, was originally scheduled for Bangkok, but was cancelled after the coup there. Hong Kong was finally chosen over other candidates including Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore as the city had an available venue, transport and infrastructure to support the meeting.