A Canadian patient’s receipt of a kidney transplant after waiting just three days during a recent visit to China raised an immediate red flag among surgeons at the Montreal-based Transplantation Society: A turnaround that quick indicates the organ likely came from the body of an executed prisoner.
The case adds to doubts among many doctors internationally about whether China has met its pledge to stop harvesting the organs of executed inmates. The practice is widely condemned by the World Health Organization and others because of concerns over coercive practices and fears it could encourage executions.
China officially claims it ended the harvesting of executed inmates’ organs in January 2015. Some foreign doctors who have worked in China say authorities are behaving more responsibly, but other observers say China hasn’t done enough to prove that it’s fulfilled that pledge.
China sought to use the Transplantation Society’s decision to hold its annual meeting in Hong Kong this month as validation of its transplant program. But Dr. Philip O’Connell, the society’s president, rejected that interpretation, even if it appeared some reforms had been successful.
“We realize that this isn’t going to change in a day,” O’Connell said. “It’s not going to go from a system that was using organs from executed prisoners, that was driven by corruption and where organs were being paid for … to a system that’s completely open, transparent and ethical.”
In a country that routinely suppresses discussions of human-rights issues and cracks down on lawyers and independent groups, government officials and state media have been relatively open about China’s problems with organ donation.
Dr. Huang Jiefu, head of the system that supervises transplants in Chinese hospitals, has been the public face of the country’s attempts to change its transplant practices. Huang publicly admitted in 2005 that doctors used executed prisoners’ organs. In 2011, Huang and other officials estimated that 65 percent of transplanted organs from the deceased came from executed prisoners.
In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, Huang said he was confident hospitals under his purview were moving to donated organs, but that black-market surgeries still persist.
“We still have a long way to go,” Huang said.
A former deputy health minister, Huang said he speaks to top government officials about reforms they need to make to win the world’s confidence. Among the needed reforms, Huang said, is a crackdown on organ trafficking and more regulations on how organs are procured. China also needs to train far more doctors and hospitals to perform surgeries, he said.
“Our organ transplantation must be 100 percent reliant on civilian, voluntary organ donation,” Huang said. “Otherwise, we cannot stand on the world stage.”
China is believed to execute more people than any other country in the world, though the total number is kept secret. Amnesty International estimates the annual number is in thousands.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.