China is on track to lead the world in organ transplant surgeries by 2020 following its abandonment of the controversial practice of using organs from executed prisoners.
Huang Jiefu, chairman of the China Organ Donation and Transplantation Committee, said voluntary civilian organ donations had risen from just 30 in 2010, the first year of a pilot programme, to more than 5,500 this year.
That will allow around 15,000 people to receive transplants this year, he said. The US currently leads the world in organ transplants, with about 28,000 people receiving them each year.
“We anticipate according to the speed of the development of the organ donation in China, the momentum, in the year 2020, China will become the number one country in the world to perform organ transplantation in an ethical way,” Mr Huang said.
China is seeking to expand the number of willing organ donors, but has run up against some cultural barriers.
Family members are still able to block a donation, even if the giver is willing, and Chinese are adverse to registering as donors by ticking a box on their drivers’ licences, considering it to be tempting fate.
Instead, authorities are partnering with AliBaba, China’s virtually ubiquitous online shopping and payment platform, to allow people to register in just ten seconds.
Mr Huang said more than 210,000 Chinese have expressed their willingness to become donors, although that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the country’s population of 1.37 billion.
More qualified transplant coordinators and doctors are also needed, along with improved connections between the 173 hospitals certified to perform such operations.
“It’s still a newborn baby, not yet a perfect system,” Mr Huang said.
He said China has adhered to a complete ban on the use of organs from executed prisoners that went into effect in 2015, although some in the field outside China have called for the country to allow independent scrutiny to ensure it is keeping to its pledge.
Critics have questioned China’s claims of reform and suggested that the World Health Organisation should be allowed to conduct surprise investigations and interview donor relatives. The UN health agency has no authority to enter countries without their permission.
Officials say China should not be singled out for such treatment while other countries are not.
China has also taken measures to stamp out organ trafficking and “transplant tourism,” including by limiting transplants to Chinese citizens.