Illegal organ deals strike fear into hearts of Chinese

16:46, June 08, 2011      

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Steve Jobs, the American IT icon who founded Apple Inc. and gave the world its iPods and iPhones, probably never imagined that a young man in China would sell one of his own kidneys in order to buy an iPad 2.

"Xiao Zheng," a 17-year-old technophile, sold one of his kidneys for 22,000 yuan (3,300 U.S. dollars) through an underground dealer. He used the money to buy an iPad 2 and a laptop computer.

Earlier this month, Xiao Zheng's story appeared on the Internet, drawing thousands of comments.

While Xiao Zheng's Apple madness was greeted with morbid curiosity, the story of an impoverished countryside resident who ended up losing a kidney in an illicit organ deal ignited public fury over the practice.

A few months ago, 26-year-old Hu Jie from central China's Hunan Province decided to sell one of his kidneys to settle his gambling debts.

Hu had second thoughts about the deal, but before he could voice his discontent, the underground dealers he had contacted cornered him and bound him to an operating table. He ended up losing one of his kidneys after all was said and done.

"It was a dark room, cold and shabby," Hu said. "The nurse inserted a huge needle into my body, and I soon passed out."

Hu posted his tragic experience on the Internet in February, which later led to the Ministry of Health ordering a nationwide crackdown on hospitals conducting unlicensed organ transplant surgeries.

At the end of March, public health authorities in north China's Shanxi Province revoked the medical license of Changliang Hospital, where Hu's surgery took place. The hospital's operations were suspended and the medical staff involved in the incident will likely face legal action.

There are no official statistics regarding the number of illegal organ deals taking place in China every year, but horror stories occasionally surface, suggesting a fairly vibrant underground market.

"Underground organ dealing rings have a strict hierarchy," Hu said. "Those in charge of finding organ sellers are at the lowest level, and those contacting buyers are higher. On top of the ring are the people securing the hospitals."

Both Xiao Zheng and Hu got into contact with illegal intermediaries through the Internet. In their words, websites filled with alluring advertisements for organ deals were just a click away.

Liu Yang, a director from the provincial public health department in Shanxi, said that the underground organ market is fed by a massive supply gap.

Statistics show there are about 1.5 million patients on China's organ transplant waiting list, but the number of registered donors is only about 10,000, accounting for less than one percent of the demand.

One major reason for this gap, said Liu, lies with the traditional Chinese belief that humans should die intact.

In 2007, the State Council, or China's cabinet, created a regulation that bans living people from donating organs, except for spouses, blood relatives and in-laws or adopted family members.

In February this year, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, approved a revision to the country's Criminal Law. The revision states that "organizing others to sell human organs" is a crime.

Liu Mingxiang, vice dean of the Law School of Renmin University, said that criminalizing underground organ transactions is a significant step forward in preventing the practice.

However, he added, legal interpretations are still needed to better define the law.

"As it stands now, sellers and buyers are not subject to punishment under the revision," he said.

To tackle the issue, Liu has called for more campaigns to inform people of the harm done through underground organ deals and raise awareness for posthumous organ donation programs.

In the cases of Xiao Zheng and Hu, neither of them realized how dangerous the organ removal operations could be.

"The agent said the operation would not do much harm to my body," Hu recalled.

Liu has also pressed for a specialized law concerning organ transplants, much like the laws currently in place in many developed countries.

However, Wang Liming, vice president of Renmin University, did not see that coming any time soon.

"There is no sign that China will create a law concerning organ transplants in the near future," Wang said.

In the meantime, authorities are racking their brains to try and find a way to encourage the public to donate their organs posthumously.

In March 2010, the Ministry of Health and the Red Cross Society of China launched an organ donation pilot program in 11 provinces and municipalities.

However, as of February this year, the program has only resulted in the donation of 37 organs.

In April, Vice Health Minister Huang Jiefu said the government should "reduce medical costs for donors during their hospital stays and help with their funeral expenses."

He also suggested using other financial compensation such as tax rebates, medical insurance or tuition waivers for donors' family members.

Chinese citizens will also have the option of registering as organ donors when they apply for new driver's licenses this year.

"Certain incentives are necessary," Liu said. "However, too many incentives will make donating look like a business deal."

Source: Xinhua
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