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Japan okays transplants for kids

JAPAN passed a law yesterday that will allow children to receive organ transplants for the first time, reversing a ban that doomed many young patients or forced them to seek help abroad.

The new law also allows children, defined as those under 15, who are declared brain dead to donate organs - a sea change in this country, which suffers chronic organ shortages largely because of Buddhist beliefs that consider the body sacred and reject its desecration.

Until 1997, Japan had barred organ donations from the brain dead. A law enacted that year still placed several restrictions on donations, banning them from children and from those who did not specifically release their organs.

The law passed yesterday will give relatives the authority to consent to donations in cases where the patient's own intentions were unclear, according to the document, which was posted on the legislature's Website. It will take effect in the summer of 2010.

The new law brings Japan more in line with World Health Organization guidelines, though it still places more restrictions than some countries that consider consent for organ donation the default in the absence of specific instructions that the body be left intact.

Largely because of its historically stringent laws on organ transplant and donation, Japan performs only a tiny fraction of the number of transplants that the United States and Europe do.

Since 1997, just over 2,100 transplants were performed in Japan, according to the Japan Organ Transplant Network, the country's only organ donation coordinator. By contrast, the US performs thousands and many European countries perform hundreds each year.

Despite years of campaigning by activists, the legal revision has long been on hold because of sensitivity over the definition of death in Japan, where many believe one is alive until the heart fails.

Though for the past decade Japan has allowed donations from brain dead patients, the new law goes further, defining brain death as legal death for the first time.


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