The Ministry of Health is gearing up to introduce a nationwide definition of brain death to facilitate human organ transplants, said Vice-Minister Huang Jiefu.
The authorities will start mapping out the criteria needed to define brain death in October.
Huang made the remarks at the just concluded China Organ Transplant Forum in Beijing, which was organized to bring together experts to provide suggestions on how the legislation and standards governing organ transplants could be improved.
"Determining the criteria is the key to our most important goal - producing legislation on brain death," Huang said.
It is officially estimated that 2 million Chinese need organ transplants each year, but only 20,000 operations are conducted because of a shortage of organs.
Many people die waiting for organs suited to their bodies. The severe lack of organs, such as kidneys and livers, is mainly to blame, Huang said.
Most of the organs used for transplants are donated by citizens who have voluntarily signed donation agreements.
However, 15 minutes after the cessation of the heartbeat and breathing - the current legal definition of death - organs are irreparably damaged and can no longer be harvested for transplants, medical experts said.
It is illegal to take organs from the brain-dead for transplant purposes.
Huang, a liver transplant specialist, said that to increase the success rate of organ transplants, the legal definition of death should be expanded beyond the traditional notion of cessation of heartbeat and eventually come to include clauses on brain death.
Most Western countries have adopted a concept of brain death defined by the absence of brain-stem reflexes, no evidence of breathing and a total lack of consciousness.
Most Chinese hold to the view that "human life ends with the last breath and heartbeat," Zhang Lei, a leading organ transplant surgeon at Beijing Friendship Hospital, told China Daily.
Such a view has hampered the introduction of legislation on brain death, even though medical professionals have been calling for the promulgation of such a law since the 1980s, Zhang said.
China has been carrying out organ transplants for more than 20 years and is the world's second largest performer of transplants after the United States.
The ministry recently designated 164 hospitals on the mainland to perform organ transplant surgeries, Huang said. The names of these hospitals will be released soon.
The regulation on human organ transplants, which prohibits organ trading in any form and prioritizes Chinese citizens for the surgery when resources are available, took effect in May.
In the past, many foreigners came to China on so-called medical tours for transplants, which are far cheaper here than in their home countries.
(China Daily August 23, 2007)