China investigating illegal transplants for 17 Japanese tourists

Organ transfers for foreigners banned in '07

By Mark McDonald
New York Times / February 18, 2009
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HONG KONG - China said yesterday that it was investigating whether 17 Japanese tourists had received illegal kidney and liver transplants in China.

"China strongly opposes organ transplant tourism," the Ministry of Health said on its website, adding that the hospitals and medical personnel "who carried out the organ transplants against the rules will be severely dealt with according to the law."

China has banned all transplants for foreigners - so-called "organ tourists" - because an estimated 1.5 million Chinese are on waiting lists for transplants. The ban was issued May 1, 2007.

It was not immediately clear whether news of the scandal would inflame anti-Japanese sentiment in China. Relations between the two countries are fragile, with old hurts still sensitive.

The ministry's investigation, reported in the state-run newspaper China Daily, comes after a report by the Japanese news agency Kyodo News that the 17 tourists had spent the equivalent of $87,000 each for the operations. The price reportedly included travel, accommodation, and 20 days of treatment at a hospital in Guangzhou, in southern China.

At the request of the hospital, some of the Japanese patients registered under Chinese names, the Kyodo report said. Most of the patients were between 50 and 65 years old.

The agency also said most of the organs were likely harvested from executed Chinese prisoners.

Chinese officials have said the state uses prisoners' organs only if they have been voluntarily donated. Courts, doctors, health officials, and hospitals must approve such transplants and the prisoners must agree in writing, the government said.

China Daily reported that China is second only to the United States in the number of transplant operations performed each year.

"Due to the lack of organ donors, shortage of organs is a problem in all countries, not just China," Mao Qunan, a Health Ministry spokesman, said at a recent press briefing. "Priority must be given to domestic patients in urgent need of an operation."

Last year the deputy health minister, Huang Jiefu, said his ministry had punished three Chinese hospitals for selling organs to foreigners. The disclosure, reported in local media, came in remarks Huang made at a medical conference in Shanghai.

An investigation in China in 2004 by the British newspaper The Independent found a flourishing underground trade in organ sales and transplants, especially for Japanese patients. And in 2006 a reporter from the BBC went to a public hospital in the city of Tianjin, ostensibly to arrange a liver transplant for his ailing father. The reporter said hospital officials told him a suitable liver could be available in three weeks.

Earlier this month, after years of controversy over organ trafficking in China, the government said it would establish a registry for organ donors and recipients.

Kyodo News also reported in November that the police in Yokohama were questioning a 52-year-old Japanese man on suspicion of brokering organ transplants for Japanese tourists in China.

A court in Shenyang, China, had previously found the man guilty of false advertising in connection with an alleged organ-transplant brokerage he ran over the Internet. Hiroyuki Nagase, who received a 14-month prison term and a fine in China, was deported to Japan after serving his sentence.

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