Tighter rules worsen the plight of liver patients

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2007, 12:00am

The central government's tightened regulations on organ transplants have made it more difficult for desperate Hong Kong patients to receive new livers on the mainland.

But Fan Sheung-tat, known as the city's 'father of liver transplants', said that in the long term the national policy would benefit patients by better guaranteeing the quality of donated organs.

So far this year, only two local patients have received liver transplants on the mainland, significantly down from 39 for the whole of last year.

They are receiving follow-up treatment at the city's only liver transplant centre at Queen Mary Hospital.

About 140 Hong Kong people are waiting for liver transplants, and a study by the Hong Kong Liver Foundation has found that about 30 listed patients die each year before they can find a donor.

There were 72 livers donated last year and 64 in 2005.

Desperate patients have turned to mainland hospitals, which have a greater supply of organs, most of them suspected to have come from executed prisoners in a practice that has been condemned by human rights activists around the world.

But early this year, the central government adopted a series of measures to tighten control over both death sentences and organ transplants. Lower courts now have to send death sentence verdicts to the Supreme People's Court for approval, which has delayed executions and the potential supply of organs.

Dr Fan, head of liver transplantation and hepatobiliary surgery at the University of Hong Kong, said that from early this year, the central government had also banned all kinds of transactions in human organs. Foreigners, except under special circumstances, are not allowed to undergo organ transplants on the mainland.

From March, the Human Organ Transplant Act has stipulated that all organ donations, including those from prisoners, must be voluntary without payment and have written consent.

Dr Fan said Beijing was also considering setting up a national agency to oversee organ procurement and allocation.

'In the past, over 600 hospitals on the mainland could conduct organ transplants, but their quality and source of organs are not assured. Now only 164 accredited hospitals can perform the operations,' he said.

Only 70 per cent of patients survived for more than a year after receiving organ transplants from deceased people on the mainland, compared with 90 per cent in Queen Mary Hospital, Dr Fan's study found. He said about one in four donated livers on the mainland were unhealthy.

'Sometimes the livers were damaged when people, usually not professional doctors, removed them from corpses. Yet, mainland transplant doctors generally have pretty good skills, because they do many more transplants and have rich experience. It was estimated that the mainland conducted over 5,000 liver transplants in 2005,' he said.

'In the short term, Hong Kong patients will find it more difficult to have organ transplants on the mainland. But in the long term, it is beneficial to the patients, because the quality can be better guaranteed.'