A SKIN bank at the Prince of Wales Hospital is helping to save the lives of people suffering serious burns who would otherwise have little hope of recovery. Macau resident Ho Ion-kwan, who suffered burns to 80 per cent of her body in a liquefied petroleum gas cylinder explosion, is still recovering from the accident which happened last October, but would probably not have survived without the skin bank. ''All her body from the chest down suffered burns; bones were even exposed in one of her legs when she came, which once made amputation look necessary,'' says Dr Walter King Wing-keung, head of the skin bank unit. ''We had to perform 13 operations to clean up the wounds.'' A person with 60 per cent burns has less than 50 per cent chance of survival, Dr King says. To prevent possible infection, Dr King covered Ms Ho's wounds with pigskin, sourced from a government slaughter-house and stored in a freezer in the skin bank within the hospital's Burns Unit. The temporary coverage allows for either natural healing later or grafting of a patient's own skin on to a damaged part when it becomes available. Ms Ho's recovery has been painstakingly slow. She was hospitalised right up to last week. Some 13 others whose lives were in danger have also been saved in Hong Kong with skin transplants. At least 50 more with less severe burns have been treated with pigskin since November 1992. Yet it seems unlikely that Hong Kong will see a proliferation of skin banks. Queen Mary Hospital announced plans for one after the territory's first skin transplants were performed there two years ago. A team of doctors then saved the lives of two severely burned patients with donated skin. In one case, a dead man's skin was used, while in the other, a husband had skin grafted from his legs to protect his wife from life-threatening infection. Dr Chan Chiu-ming, leader of the team, made an appeal for skin while revealing the plan to set up a facility providing immediately available skin. But that plan has yet to be implemented, and the hospital is tight-lipped about it. Dr Chan himself expressed reservations about using pigskin. ''It may contain hidden viruses,'' he said. A spokesman for Princess Margaret Hospital's Burns Ward says setting one up is not a priority at this stage, citing budget constraints and a limited number of patients. ''The number of cases will go down if there is increased publicity warning people against industrial and traffic accidents,'' said a hospital spokesman. ''Skin coverage will not always be in demand; Hong Kong is not a heavy industrial city with a high risk of major fire accidents. It will be enough for a few major hospitals to each have one,'' said Professor William Wei from Hong Kong University's Department of Surgery. Last year, 618 people were injured in fire accidents, up from 541 a year earlier. Thirty-two others died, compared with 43 in 1992. Dr Wei supports the use of pigskin as temporary wound coverage, though. ''It is treated skin that is used for the transplants. The chances of it having a virus are pretty low. It has been widely used overseas for many years.'' Traditional covers, either synthetic or cotton gauze dressings, are not good enough for severely burnt patients like Ms Ho. Dr King said: ''The wounds are extensive and require a long time to heal. A situation like that means higher chances of infection and to facilitate a smooth recovery process, it is better to have a coverage which is tight and less vulnerable to infection, that is real skin.'' Severe infections may occur in the blood stream, he said, adding that biological skin also allows faster healing and the best biological dressing is the rarely available cadaver skin. ''Pigskin comes off after about 10 days. Cadaver skin can stay for much longer, about three weeks,'' he added. ''It also provides a better biological environment for wounds to heal.'' Cadaver skin was only available to Dr King once. It was applied on a male factory worker who suffered 40 per cent burns during a fire at his workplace. The man has already been discharged from hospital. Beneficiaries of the local skin bank have been aged from two to 100. Among them, two died because of respiratory or heart problems caused by serious fire, according to Dr King. Scald burns were common among children admitted to the hospital's Burns Unit. The $1 million skin bank is not widely known to the public. A section of it actually allows the cultivation of a patient's skin cells to cover his own burn wounds. Future skin banks, however, may be stocked with an increased supply of cadaver skin. That is because Hong Kong is about to have a more efficient donation information system, with the pending installation of its first computerised organ donation register. It will be linked up with four major hospitals - the Prince of Wales, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Doctors at the hospitals will be able to tell upon a patient's death whether he has agreed to be an organ donor - better than relying on donor cards which can be lost or are not readily available. The Hong Kong Medical Association is in the process of inputting data on 98,000 would-be donors into the register. Dr So Kai-ming, chairman of the Hong Kong Medical Association's committee which supervises the register, said they will step up promotion of organ and skin donations in the coming months. ''People may not reject the idea of skin donation. It's just that they may not know about the importance of it,'' said Dr So. ''We will mention the availability of skin transplants in our forthcoming promotion campaigns.'' On skin donations, Dr King said: ''We only remove the first few layers of a person's skin, and usually from parts that are often covered by clothes, say upper parts of the thigh, and the back.'' Meanwhile Ms Ho, her hand scarred and looking slightly red as a result of skin grafting, was looked forward to returning to Macau on her release from hospital. But the long journey to recovery is still not over. She must now go through physiotherapy.