HANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - China plans to end its controversial practice of using the organs of executed prisoners for transplants by around the middle of next year, a senior official told Reuters on Saturday.
China is the only country that still systematically takes organs from executed prisoners for use in transplant operations, a decades-long practice that has drawn widespread international criticism.
Beijing said in August it would begin to phase out the practice this month, and health officials have previously said China must stop using dead inmates' organs to "build a positive image that benefits the country."
By mid-2014, all hospitals licensed for organ transplants will be required to stop using organs from executed prisoners and only use those voluntarily donated and allocated through a fledging national system, said Huang Jiefu, former deputy health minister who heads the organ transplant reform.
Huang would not give an exact date except that it will be following the end of a separate campaign by the ruling Communist Party designed to get officials closer to the people, which is expected to end between May and July.
Details of the plan will be announced at a meeting of health officials and hospitals in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou later on Saturday.
To cut back on its dependency on prisoners' organs, China has launched pilot volunteer organ donor programs in 25 provinces and municipalities since February, with the aim of creating a nationwide voluntary scheme by the end of this year.
The number of transplants using donated organs has jumped to more than 900 cases in the first seven months of this year from 245 in 2011, but is still less than half the number of organs from death-row inmates, according to data provided by Huang.
Rights groups say many organs are taken from prisoners without their consent or their family's knowledge, something the government denies.
A decrease in organ supply as a result of the ban on using death-row inmates' organs will put more pressure on China's nascent donation system.
Organ 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 wait-listed every year for organ transplants, and only about one in 30 ultimately receives a transplant.
The shortage has driven a trade in illegal organ trafficking, and in 2007 the government banned transplants from living donors, except spouses, blood relatives and step- or adopted family members.
Reporting by Hui Li and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ian Geoghegan