Regulations may be needed to standardize the donation and transplant of human organs in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province.
Local members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, have called for a legal framework for donations and transplants of human organs such as corneas.
The First Affiliated Hospital of Harbin Medical University reports that of the 10,000 people in Harbin suffering from various ophthalmic diseases, more than 3,000 need cornea transplants.
"What we are lacking is not technology, but the corneas," said Liu Ping, a member of CPPCC and an ophthalmologist at the hospital. "We now have no storage of corneas at all."
Liu is also the director of the eye bank of Heilongjiang Province, which was set up five years ago to accept cornea donations from local citizens.
More than 1,000 local citizens have signed agreements to donate their corneas after their death, said Liu, but the bank actually receives corneas from only a small proportion of them.
Many of the donors are still alive, Liu pointed out. But another problem is the relatives of the donors: in accordance with traditional beliefs, they prefer to keep the body intact and thus fail to notify the eye bank of the donor's death.
"The agreements do not have legal effect and are more like promises," said Liu. "We can do nothing if they break the promises."
The bank recently received its first cornea donation from a signatory to a donation agreement. The donor was Yan Ahong, a journalist who died of cancer and whose corneas helped two people regain their eyesight.
When Yan's story was made public, a few dozen people contacted the eye bank and expressed their willingness to donate their corneas.
Corneal transplants are inexpensive and successful in more than 90 percent of the cases, according to Liu. But fewer than 100 are done in Harbin annually.
More than 50 patients in Liu's hospital are on the waiting list for corneas. Some have bided their time for more than two years and missed the ideal time for a transplant, said Liu.
Liu has suggested that local regulations be enacted to ensure that the organs are made available at the time of a donor's death. He notes that organ donations are common and protected by laws in most developed countries.
The hospital can legally take the organs to save others if the donor has granted permission. In some locations in the United States, organ donor status is noted on individuals' identification cards so that they may be immediately identified.
Liu said eye banks in Shenzhen maintain contacts with local hospitals. When they learn that a patient is terminal, eye bank representatives try to persuade the patient to sign up as a donor.
(China Daily November 23, 2004)