updated 8/26/2009 7:24:44 AM ET 2009-08-26T11:24:44

The majority of transplanted organs in China come from executed prisoners, state media reported Wednesday in a rare disclosure about an industry often criticized for being opaque and unethical.

The country's Health Ministry and the Red Cross Society of China this week launched a national organ donation system to reduce the reliance on death row inmates and encourage donations from the public, the China Daily newspaper reported.

Condemned prisoners are "definitely not a proper source for organ transplants," the report quoted Vice Health Minister Huang Jiefu as saying. He has publicly acknowledged that most transplant organs are taken from executed prisoners, but only with prior consent.

Foreign medical and human rights groups have long criticized China's organ transplant trade as being opaque, profit-driven and unethical. Critics say death row prisoners may feel compelled to become donors.

Cultural bias
Voluntary donations in China remain far below demand, partly because of cultural bias against organ removal before burial. About 1.5 million people in China need transplants, but only some 10,000 operations are performed annually, Chinese health officials say.

China has acknowledged that kidneys, livers, corneas and other organs are routinely removed from prisoners sentenced to death, but gave no details. Chinese transplant specialists estimate at least 90 percent of transplanted organs come from executed prisoners, human rights groups say.

The China Daily said more than 65 percent of organ donations come from death row, citing unnamed "experts."

China puts to death more people than any other country. Earlier this year, Amnesty International said China executed at least 1,718 people in 2008. The exact number is not known.

The new donor system, launched Tuesday, will link possible donors with recipients and make public a waiting list of patients to increase transparency in allocating organs. The Red Cross will also encourage post-public donations.

The new system is China's latest step to better regulate organ transplants. In 2007, medical officials agreed not to transplant organs from prisoners or others in custody, except into members of their immediate families.

Also, regulations introduced in 2007 bar donations from living people who are not related to or emotionally connected to the transplant patient.

The Health Ministry said it could not provide more information on the new donor system as staffers were busy. The Red Cross would not take questions by phone and did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.

The system was initially being launched in 10 provinces and cities including Shanghai, Tianjin and Xiamen and will eventually be rolled out across the country, the China Daily said.

The scarcity of available organs has also led to a black market, with brokers able to arrange transplants within weeks for Chinese and foreigners willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars. The transplants are also hugely profitable for hospitals.

The China Daily said traffickers have been selling organs from people pressured or forced into donating to people unrelated to them since the tighter regulations went into effect in 2007.

More on: China

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