Improve system to get more organ donors

Updated: 2014-08-14 07:36

By Cesar Chelala (China Daily)

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The biggest illegal human organ trading case in China, unearthed in Jiangxi province in June, entered the second stage of trial this week. The gang running the human organ racket is said to have made more than 1.5 million yuan ($243,545) by selling 23 kidneys of 40 "potential suppliers" but paid the victims less than 25,000 yuan.

Apart from the miserable treatment meted out to people who are lured into donating their organs for pitiable amounts of money, the case has also highlighted the severe shortage of organ donors in China. Rough estimates show that only 10,000 of the 300,000 patients waiting for kidney transplants every year get donors. Only by putting in place new mechanisms to increase the number of organ donors can authorities overcome this serious problem plaguing the medical sector.

Lack of organ donors in China - as well as in other Asian countries - can be attributed to people's belief that a person's body should be interred (or cremated) intact, because many traditional funeral rituals lay emphasis on the "wholeness" of the body. Another reason for the dearth of organ donors in China is the lack of a clear legal definition of brain death, the criterion used in many countries to determine that a person has died. This is a critical problem that China has to address.

In 2007, the State Council, China's cabinet, passed the human organ transplant regulation, which is considered a significant piece of legislation for the development of the human organ transplant sector. Besides, the cooperation of the World Health Organization has helped ensure that the regulation is consistent with international norms.

The Ministry of Health has commissioned the Red Cross Society of China to run the organ donation system, but it has not fulfilled expectations because people are reluctant to donate their organs even after death. Up to now, only about 27,000 volunteers have registered with the China Organ Donation Administrative Center, which is run by the RCSC. A pilot trial run by the RCSC to increase donations got only 207 donors through this method. In contrast, more than 20 million people have registered with the National Health Service Organ Donor Register in the United Kingdom to donate their organs.

In 1984, the United States enacted the National Organ Transplant Act which established a national online registry for organ donors and prohibited the buying and selling of organs in the US. The 2013 National Designation Report Card of the US says 109 million people had registered with state donor registries to donate their organs by the end of 2012. In the European Union, organ donation is regulated by member states, and in 2008 the European Parliament voted for an initiative to introduce a EU organ donor card to foster organ donation.

Confronted with a dire need for organ donors, the Chinese government should use innovative ways to address the problem. It can follow Israel's example, which is the first country in the world to give people who agree to donate their organs priority treatment if they themselves require an organ transplant.

The Chinese government should carry out massive public education campaigns on the need for organ donors, informing the public of the situation in other countries and trying to dispel wrong notions that prevent people from donating organs. And the campaigns should emphasize that by donating organs people can save others' lives, while making the process as easy as possible to make it effective.

The author is an international public health consultant and a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.

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