BEIJING - From November, China will begin to phase out its controversial practice of harvesting organs from executed prisoners for transplant.
It has set a two-year deadline to end the practice, though observers say Beijing may be too ambitious in aiming for total abolishment.
A former health official said last week that the first batch of 165 hospitals licensed to carry out transplants will pledge in November to abide by a nationwide voluntary donation system instead of relying on death-row inmates.
Before that, regulations to cover procedures from organ solicitation to transplantation will be rolled out on Sept 1.
"Hospitals which do not take immediate action or manage the programme well will risk having their transplant licences revoked," Dr Huang Jiefu, director of the China Organ Donation Committee, told a Beijing conference last week.
Abolishing the practice would be deemed a turnaround for China, which admitted to taking organs from death-row prisoners only in 2006. In recent years, it has cut back on the practice.
About 64 per cent of transplanted organs came from executed prisoners at the end of last year. The figure has fallen to under 54 per cent so far this year, according to figures from Dr Huang, a former vice-health minister.
Reasons for the change include the need to improve China's international image and a growing recognition that the quality of organs harvested from prisoners may not be good due to their poor medical condition.
Officials are also optimistic that the voluntary programme, which has seen pilot schemes carried out in 25 provinces since 2010, will provide enough organs soon. Organ donations have risen from 63 in 2010 to about 130 cases a month this year.
Observers say the two-year target may be too ambitious.
The shortage is due partly to the Chinese belief that a dead person must be be buried or cremated with organs intact.
Each year, there are some 300,000 patients in China who need an organ transplant, but only 10,000 can get one.
Dr Liu Changqiu, a Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences expert on organ donations, told The Straits Times that China is unlikely to abolish the practice because some prisoners have a strong desire to atone for their crimes.
"To deny them the chance would be immoral too," he added.
Contributing to the shortage is the organ donation system itself, said Dr Liu. For instance, doctors cannot remove any organ without the patient's prior consent or if the patient's family objects.
Singapore adopts an opt-out system that allows the removal of certain organs in the event of death for transplantation unless the person has opted out.
The shortage in China has led to a thriving black market in organ trading, banned in 2007.
Dr Liu expects the phase-out to lead to higher black market prices in the short run.
Teacher Mo Nianyong, 30, who has been waiting for a kidney transplant since last year, told The Straits Times: "Using fewer organs from prisoners means my chances of a transplant are even lower. I only hope that the government's desire to improve organ donation will pay off for us soon."
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