By Li Hui and Ben Blanchard
HANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - China, the only country that still systematically takes organs from executed prisoners for use in transplant operations, plans to end the controversial practice by the middle of next year, a senior official said on Saturday.
By mid-2014, all hospitals licensed for organ transplants will be required to stop using organs from executed prisoners and only use those voluntarily donated and allocated through a fledging national system, said Huang Jiefu, a former deputy health minister who heads the organ transplant reform.
The supply of human organs falls far short of demand in China due in part to a traditional belief that bodies should be buried or cremated intact. An estimated 300,000 patients are wait-listed every year for organ transplants, and only about one in 30 ultimately receives a transplant.
That shortage has driven a trade in illegal organ trafficking, and in 2007 the government banned transplants from living donors, except spouses, blood relatives and step- or adopted family members.
Huang, an Australian-trained transplant surgeon, admitted the problem of an organ black market was not something China would be able to easily resolve.
"The illegal trade of human organs will be inevitable in Chinese society in the years to come. The huge demand for organs is one of the causes. As long as there's a gap between supply and demand, illegal organ trafficking won't disappear, but the government will continue to crack down on it," he told Reuters.
Beijing said in August it would begin to phase out the practice of using executed prisoners' organs this month. Huang did not give an exact date for a ban on their use.
"Using executed prisoners' organs for transplants does not meet with the ethical standards universally accepted, and has always received criticism from the international community," Huang told a meeting of health and hospital officials in the eastern city of Hangzhou. "China's organ transplant reform is the government's political commitment to the people, and the world."
"There has never been a law that regulates the use of prisoners' organs. Enforcement of the policy has many loopholes, and there have been a lot of scandals that tarnish the image of the Chinese government," Huang said.
Courts, which oversee executions, have been told they are no longer allowed to offer organs to hospitals, Huang later told Reuters, noting a trend in China anyway for fewer executions. "China has meted out fewer and fewer death sentences, so reliance on death-row inmates' donations will become a dead end. So we must rely on voluntary donations," he said.
China does not publish the numbers of people it executes, though the World Coalition Against The Death Penalty estimates it was about 4,000 last year.
To cut back on its dependency on prisoners' organs, China has launched pilot volunteer organ donor programs in 25 provinces and municipalities since February, with the aim of creating a nationwide voluntary scheme by the end of this year.
The number of transplants using donated organs has jumped to more than 900 cases in the first seven months of this year from 245 in 2011, but is still less than half the number of organs from death-row inmates, according to data provided by Huang.
Rights groups say many organs are taken from prisoners without their consent or their family's knowledge, something the government denies.
A decrease in organ supply will also put more pressure on China's nascent donation system.
A transplant surgeon at Saturday's meeting from the nearby city of Nanjing, who asked to be identified by his last name, Li, said it was likely the new rules would limit the number of transplants they were able to carry out.
"There might be a temporary shortage of organs. If so, we will just have to do fewer transplants. There's nothing we can do about that. Other countries haven't solved that problem either," he said.
(Ben Blanchard reported from Beijing; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)