03/29/2006, 00.00
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Rules on transplants will not stop organs trade

99% of organs come from people condemned to death. The government is seeking to regulate one of the most profitable forms of trafficking that draws in prisons, police, courts and doctors.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – The Health Ministry has launched a series of rules governing the sale and transplanting of human organs, extremely widespread practices in China that are subject to corruption and abuses.

The regulations will enter into force on July 1. They stipulate that each and every transplant should be carried out by qualified doctors in hygienically sound and technically well-equipped environments. They also list specific conditions for taking organs from live donors. But experts say the new rules do not resolve the crucial problem of illegal trade in organs.

China now ranks second worldwide in numbers of organ transplants carried out. Each year, doctors undertake some 7 to 8,000 operations, especially on rich people coming from Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. The trade is flourishing although most people who received transplants died within one or two years. The average cost of a kidney transplant is of 65,000 US dollars; a liver can cost up to 157,000 dollars. Operation costs increase by around 10,000 dollars for the transplant of the organ. Chen Zhonghua, from the Transplantation Institute of Tongji Hospital in Wuhan, said the rules were "just a tiny step forward in legislation" and that they did not tackle the problem of the source of the organs.

According to statistics from people working in the sector, 99% of organs come from executed prisoners and only 1% comes from live donors. Yesterday, Qin Gang, Foreign Ministry spokesman, denied this high percentage, claiming that organs were taken from prisoners "in only a few cases". In reality, the sale of organs after execution is a trade that boosts prison coffers. Years ago, Human Rights Watch published entire dossiers on trafficking in the organs of death row convicts. The methods of execution have been changed to allow for use of the organs. Before, condemned men were killed by a bullet to the back of the head or the heart. Now, to save all their organs, convicts are killed by lethal injection, in the presence of doctors and nurses and with special containers set up in equipped ambulances. The body of the man killed is given to doctors who see to the extraction and conservation of the organs. Communist Party officials have admitted that each year, China carries out at least 10,000 executions, thus fuelling the organ trade. According to human rights groups, execution is put off until the market needs organs that match the blood group and body type of the prisoner.

It is unclear whether or not prisoners give consent for the use of their organs. Many families of condemned people, especially followers of the Falun Gong movement, have accused the government of using the organs of their relatives without their consent.

Medical institutions have carried out research on executed prisoners' organs since the 1960s. However, it was in the 90s that the trade started to boom. Prof. Chen Zhonghua pointed to a thick web of connivance that draws together the police, the courts and hospitals for the sake of money.

Another source of organs is people who offer their own for transplants because of desperate poverty. Individuals and organizations fill the walls of hospitals, clinics, washrooms and websites with offers of kidneys, giving their telephone number as a contact. The new regulations may be able to rein in the illegal trade but they will not stop it. According to Prof. Chen, the situation remains "disordered and messy". The only positive aspect is that the new rules will stop transplants in "substandard medical institutes without qualified personnel".

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