By Li Hui and Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - China will start phasing out its decades-long practice of using the organs of executed prisoners for transplant operations from November, a senior official said on Thursday, as it pushes to mandate the use of organs from ethical sources in hospitals.
China remains the only country in the world that still systematically uses organs extracted from executed prisoners in transplant operations, a practice that has drawn widespread international criticism. Many Chinese view the practice as a way for criminals to redeem themselves.
But officials have recently spoken out against the practice of harvesting organs from dead inmates, saying it "tarnishes the image of China".
The health ministry will begin enforcing the use of organs from voluntary donors allocated through a fledging national program at a meeting set to be held in November, former deputy health minister Huang Jiefu, who still heads the ministry's organ transplant office, told Reuters.
"I am confident that before long all accredited hospitals will forfeit the use of prisoner organs," Huang said.
The first batch of all 165 Chinese hospitals licensed for transplants will promise to stop using organs harvested from death row inmates at the November meeting, he added. Huang did not specify the exact number.
MEETING "ACCEPTED ETHICAL STANDARDS"
An Australian-trained liver transplant surgeon, Huang said the China Organ Transplant Committee will ensure that the "source of the organs for transplantation must meet the commonly accepted ethical standards in the world".
That effectively means the use of prisoner organs at approved hospitals will come to an end, but the timeframe remains indefinite, he added.
China has launched pilot volunteer organ donor programs in 25 provinces and municipalities with the aim of creating a nationwide voluntary scheme by the end of 2013.
By the end of 2012, about 64 percent of transplanted organs in China came from executed prisoners and the number has dipped to under 54 percent so far this year, according to figures provided by Huang.
At a meeting in August last year, Huang, deputy health minister at the time, told officials that top leaders had decided to reduce dependency on prisoners' organs, according to a transcript of the meeting obtained by Reuters.
Rights groups say many organs are taken from prisoners without their consent or their family's knowledge, something the government denies.
So far, more than 1,000 organ donors have come through the new system, benefiting at least 3,000 patients, Huang said.
Voluntary organ donation in China has already risen from 63 cases in all of 2010 to a current average of 130 per month so far this year, Huang added.
However, not all donated organs are currently allocated through the new program, leaving room for human interference, one of the main challenges the reform faces.
Supply still falls far short of demand due in part to the traditional Chinese belief that bodies should be buried or cremated intact. An estimated 300,000 patients are waitlisted every year for organ transplants and only about one in 30 ultimately will receive a transplant.
The shortage has driven a trade in illegal organ trafficking and in 2007 the government banned organ transplants from living donors, except spouses, blood relatives and step or adopted family members.
(Editing by Sui-Lee Wee and Ron Popeski)