THE number of organ transplants, and possibly executions, in China appears to have dropped sharply this year as Chinese authorities respond to criticism of a gruesome commercial transplant trade, says a leading medical authority just back from Beijing.
But the Ministry of Health has yet to give a firm commitment to stopping the use of organs from executed prisoners, says Jeremy Chapman, director of acute interventional medicine at Westmead Hospital.
Dr Chapman was recently elected president of the Transplantation Society, an international body that has pioneered ethical standards for this fast-evolving field, and joined its delegation that met China's Health Minister, Chen Zhu, and Vice-Minister Huang Jiefu last month to discuss the organ trade.
The officials reported legal changes limiting the number of centres authorised to carry out organ transplants and banning commercial transplant tourism, which had been attracting thousands of desperate patients from around the world until last year.
Anecdotal evidence including a drop in sales of immuno-suppressive drugs and a reported decline in patients travelling to China from countries such as Japan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, reinforced reports that the crackdown had begun to work.
"We have evidence from a number of different sources, all of which support a true reduction in the number of liver and kidney transplants dramatically," Dr Chapman said.
In 2005 and 2006 China had been doing about 11,000 operations a year, including 3500 liver transplants, but this year it seemed to be about half that.
The delegation found no evidence to back claims by two Canadians, David Kilgour and David Matas that Chinese transplant clinics were being given organs on demand from jailed members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
However, China has admitted taking organs, purportedly with consent, from executed criminals. "We wish to stop all organ donations from executed prisoners," Dr Chapman said.
In Beijing he was told that executions had fallen to "a handful" this year after local courts were ordered to get the country's top judicial body, the Supreme People's Court, to sign off on all death sentences, and that China's intention was to abolish the death penalty at some point.