China rolls out national organ donation program

Radio Australia

March 9, 2011

China is extending its public organ donation program as part of continued efforts to address the shortage of organs.

The program has been trialed in 16 provinces over the last two years with fairly limited success.

Just 200 people have signed up.

However, the Health Ministry says it’s confident of getting a better response once the program is rolled out nationally.

Organ donation has been a controversial issue in China where more than 65 per cent of organs currently come from executed prisoners.

Presenter: Helene Hofman

Speaker: David Matas, Canadian international human rights lawyer and expert on organ harvesting in China

MATAS: I suppose it’s progress but it’s basically cosmetic because the Chinese government relies, and the Chinese hospitals and the Chinese system rely almost entirely on transplants on organs from prisoners. And they don’t have the traditional sources, donations and accident victims. The Chinese announcement that they’re expanding their pilot project of donations across China is to the good, but the reality is that they’ve had this pilot project in 11 cities running for a year and they had very few donations, I think 17 in a year. They had more people working on donations than they actually got donations. And so donations haven’t really become yet an effective replacement for prisoners as a source of organs.

HOFMAN: To get some figures over the two year trial period it was 200 donations in 16 regions that were put forward. Now the authorities say that ten-thousand transplants are carried out each year, 65 per cent of those come from prisoners and that there are still one-point-five million transplants needed on top of that?

MATAS: Well I think we have to remember also that these are not living donations, they’re deceased donor donations. So that the person who donates isn’t actually giving an organ, he or she is just promising to give an organ when they die as a result of which those 200 donations do not actually lead to organs, they just maybe some time in the future will lead to organs. And I think what China has to do is overcome the cultural inhibition to organ donation. And that requires leadership from the Communist Party, from the Central Committee. Why isn’t Hu Jintao donating his organs? Why aren’t all the leading cadres donating their organs? We need to get some form of leadership to overcome this cultural inhibition?

HOFMAN: But it’s not as if there hasn’t been any effort in China. For example the Red Cross Society’s program was launched in August 2009, but do you feel there still hasn’t been anything before this announcement from the Health Ministry about it?

MATAS: It becomes very easy to ignore donations or to downplay donations when there’s a ready source, even it’s a disreputable source, people don’t feel the need for donations because there’s all the organs they need from prisons. My view is they shouldn’t be using prisoners and they shouldn’t be phasing out prisoners, they should be stopping the use of prisoners cold turkey. Some of them are prisoners sentenced to death, some of them are political prisoners, prisoners of conscience, Falun Gong practitioners, Uighurs, Tibetans, and that shouldn’t be happening under any circumstances. And if people saw the need for donations in order to have organ transplants, the growing of donations I think would increase.

HOFMAN: But even with the donations coming from the prisoners, they’re still only carrying out ten-thousand transplants out of the one-point-five-million that are needed. So clearly there is a demand that’s out there and that hasn’t moved the government to do anything to date?

MATAS: Well it’s true there’s one-point-five-million, but the ten-thousand is the second largest in the world after the United States, it’s a pretty high volume. Secondly the whole health system is run financially, meaning that you pay for transplants and you pay a lot, so it’s not clear that the one-point-five million that want the transplants even if there were all the organs in the world would get them, because they may not have the funds to pay for them.

HOFMAN: There’s also an issue I understand between brain death and cardiac death. Is that also something that you feel might be limiting their ability to deal with the issue?

MATAS: Well of course because China does not allow for the extraction of organs from brain dead, cardiac alive, and most countries do. And they had promised many years now to enact a law to allow for this sort of searching from the accident victims, and of course China like everything else has lots of accident victims, so this is a potential large source of organs. And again, the only thing that seems to be stopping it is the cultural inhibition and that they have floated the law, proposed the law and there’s just been a lot of backlash against it. And this is ironic because the Communist Party prides itself on its modernism, on its rejecting and repressing the ancient Chinese traditions, yet here they’re inhibited by them and controlled by them.

HOFMAN: Well the Red Cross in China has argued that the process of getting people interested in organ donation took 20 years in the US. Do you think it will take that long in China and what are the implications of it taking 20 years?

MATAS: I don’t think it has to take 20 years, sometimes cultural attitudes can shift very quickly if there’s a felt need, if there’s leadership, if this appears to be the only really viable source for organs, I think things can change quickly. I don’t think that we necessarily have to assume just because the US took 20 years, it’s going to take 20 years everywhere.