CHINA will start phasing out its practice of using the organs of executed prisoners for transplant operations from November, a senior official said yesterday.
Instead the Communist government will promote voluntary donations to state hospitals,.
China remains the only nation in the world that harvests organs from executed prisoners for use in transplant operations.
The practice has drawn widespread international criticism but many Chinese view organ donation as a way for criminals to redeem themselves.
Officials have recently spoken out against the decades-old practice saying it “tarnishes the image of China”.
The health ministry will begin enforcing the use of organs from voluntary donors allocated through a fledging national programme at a meeting set to be held in November, former deputy health minister Huang Jiefu, who heads the ministry’s organ transplant office, said yesterday.
“I am confident that before long all accredited hospitals will forfeit the use of prisoner organs,” Mr Huang said.
The first batch of all 165 Chinese hospitals licensed for transplants will promise to stop using organs harvested from those the state executes at the November meeting, he added. Mr Huang did not specify the exact number.
An Australian-trained liver transplant surgeon, Mr Huang said the China Organ Transplant Committee would ensure that the “source of the organs for transplantation must meet the commonly accepted ethical standards in the world”.
That effectively means the use of prisoner organs at approved hospitals will come to an end, but the time-frame remains unclear, he added.
China has launched pilot volunteer organ donor programmes in 25 provinces and municipalities with the aim of creating a nationwide voluntary scheme by the end of 2013.
By the end of 2012, about 64 per cent of transplanted organs in China came from executed prisoners and the number has dipped to under 54 per cent so far this year, according to figures provided by Mr Huang.
At a meeting in August last year, Mr Huang, deputy health minister at the time, told officials that top Communist leaders had decided to reduce dependency on prisoners’ organs, according to a transcript of the meeting.
Human rights groups claim many organs are taken from prisoners without their consent or their family’s knowledge, something the Chinese government denies.
So far, more than 1,000 organ donors have come through the new system, benefiting at least 3,000 patients, Mr Huang said.
Voluntary organ donation in China has already risen from 63 cases in all of 2010 to a current average of 130 a month so far this year, Mr Huang added.
However, not all donated organs are currently allocated through the new programme, leaving room for human interference, one of the main challenges the reform faces.
Supply still falls far short of demand due in part to the traditional Chinese belief that bodies should be buried or cremated intact.
An estimated 300,000 patients are put on the waiting list every year for organ transplants and only about one in 30 will ultimately receive a transplant.
The shortage has driven a trade in illegal organ trafficking and in 2007 the Beijing government banned organ transplants from living donors, except spouses, blood relatives and step – or adopted family members.