China looks to Spain for a new organ transplantation model

Officials say they have learned valuable insights from partnership with the world’s leader in donations

Macarena Vidal Liy

After the decades-long practice of removing organs from executed prisoners, China now wants to overhaul its controversial transplantation methods and create a more humane system based solely on voluntary donations. And Spain, with its world-renowned transplant system, has become the country’s role model.

China only introduced volunteer organ donation in 2010.
China only introduced volunteer organ donation in 2010.David Gray (REUTERS)

To demonstrate its goodwill and desire for greater transparency, Chinese officials have opened up one of the nation’s main specialized centers, the Beijing Friendship Hospital, to a small group of foreign media – all of them Spanish.

It was only in 2010 that China began to introduce a system of volunteer donations. A total of 34 people signed up. But numbers have soared since then, say Chinese officials.

China aims to raise number of donors from four to 10 per one million inhabitants 

On January 1, 2015, removing organs from executed prisoners was officially banned. Last year, 2,766 people donated 7,785 organs and 10,500 transplants were performed, all using volunteer donors.

Huang Jiefu, president of China’s Transplantation Foundation and a former deputy minister of health, said that this year donor numbers could grow by as much as 80% to reach 4,000.

Chinese officials partly attribute this progress to cooperation with the Spanish transplantation system. The partnership began in 2012, when the first contacts began between the Barcelona-based transplantation institute TPM-DTI and Chinese doctors.

Since then, around 1,000 Chinese health professionals have received training using Spanish advice; a further 50 have traveled to Spain to learn on site.

A heart transplant surgery at Juan Canalejo Hospital in A Coruña.
A heart transplant surgery at Juan Canalejo Hospital in A Coruña.Xurxo Lobato

“It is a great success story of a health system based on cooperation and solidarity,” says TPM-DTI president Martí Manyalich, who recently visited Beijing to participate in a world congress on transplantation.

China has been especially keen to adopt the management model used in Spain, where donors are sought in hospitals by medical teams in intensive care units who are trained to deal with patients and their families.

Spain has achieved the world’s highest donation rate, with 39.7 donors per million people. The goal of Chinese doctors is to raise their own figures from four donors per one million inhabitants to 10, in a country with a population of nearly 1.4 billion.

“That would be spectacular,” said Dr Huang.

China needs around 300,000 transplants a year.

“We have received very valuable suggestions about ways of obtaining and distributing organs,” says Dr Sun Liying, head of the liver-transplant department at the Beijing Friendship Hospital.

Human-rights groups say removing organs from prisoners continues in China

But issues remain. Besides a cultural reticence to donation and a mistrust of the health system, there is the price to take into account. Only kidney transplants are covered by Social Security. A liver-transplant surgery can cost over 600,000 yuan (around €80,000), excluding medication and the hospital stay.

And human-rights investigators claim that the practice of removing organs from prisoners continues.

Huang calls the allegations “trash,” but admits that there is still a long way to go. “No country, nobody, is perfect. We all have to improve our shortfalls, reduce our mistakes, try to improve. And that is our approach.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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