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Sunday, February 28, 1999 Published at 16:19 GMT


Transplant first in Japan

Media photographers chase the donor organs

By Juliet Hindell in Tokyo

Japanese doctors carried out the country's first heart transplant in 30 years on Sunday. The operation was made possible after a law was passed allowing such operations by defining the term "brain-dead".

Amid a frenzy of media coverage, the heart, liver and kidneys of a 40-year-old woman who had been confirmed brain-dead were transferred by air around the country to patients in four different cities.

Her heart was transplanted to a 44-year-old man in an operation that hospital officials described as successful.

The woman, who had been left in a coma after suffering a brain haemorrhage, was the first person carrying an organ donor card to be declared brain-dead since a new law introduced in 1997 allowed doctors to make the diagnosis.

Before the change, Japan had not allowed a person to be declared dead for the purposes of organ transplants until the heart had stopped.

Public remain divided

That made transplants difficult, as organs deteriorate quickly once the heart has stopped.

Until now, Japanese people needing transplants have had to travel abroad. There are 18 people awaiting heart transplants in Japan, but only a tiny number of people carry organ donor cards.

The Japanese Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi, said Sunday's operation would help Japan catch up with the rest of the world in organ transplants.

The last time a heart transplant was performed in Japan the patient died 83 days later and the surgeon was charged with murder amid suspicions that the donor's brain-death had not been confirmed.

A court dismissed the charges against Dr Toshiro Wada who carried out the transplant, but the case fostered suspicion among the public about the ethics of Japan's medical profession.

The Japanese public still remain divided on the issue, with only a third of people in favour of transplants.

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