A file photo of a market in Jishou, in central China's Hunan province. (AFP)
A file photo of a market in Jishou, in central China's Hunan province. (AFP)

Human placenta continues to be sold illegally in China: Reports

The practice, considered morbid by many, is not new to China but a report by thepaper.cn found that it continues to flourish despite a ban on trading of human organs since 2007
By Sutirtho Patranobis
PUBLISHED ON MAR 17, 2021 04:33 PM IST

Human placenta continues to be sold illegally in China, including on the internet, because of a steady demand for the organ’s unproven healing properties, a media report said this week.

Customers who buy placenta cook and eat it, while the organ is also sold to traditional Chinese medicine makers who use it in medications.

The practice, considered morbid by many, is not new to China but the report by thepaper.cn found that it continues to flourish despite a ban on trading of human organs since 2007.

The usual sources to buy the human product are hospitals, medical waste treatment plants and funeral parlours, the report found, adding that each placenta could cost around 80 yuan ($12).

Subsequently, after being processed, when it is sold to shops, the cost could go up to several hundred yuan.

Processing placenta into capsules has become a business in China as some feel uncomfortable to eat it directly, said the report.

Called “ziheche” in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), placenta is believed to strengthen immune systems that are weak and it is also said to be good for reproductive health.

“On online shopping platform Taobao, placenta from a boy is sold at 480 yuan ($73) and 450 yuan ($69) from a girl. The price difference is due to a long-term belief in China that a baby boy’s placenta has stronger health benefits. Online sellers often use vague or cryptic language to disguise what they are selling to avoid detection by authorities,” according to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

“Currently, hospitals in China either return the placentas to their owners or dispose of them as medical wastes if new mothers don’t want them,” Huang Chengsheng, an obstetrician at the Shanghai Sixth People’s Hospital, told the tabloid Global Times in another report.

“Many new mothers choose to take their placentas home and eat them,” Huang was quoted as saying.

According to reports, placentophagy - the practice of eating one’s placenta after birth - is relatively common in China.

Scientists have questioned the tradition.

“Despite the many claimed benefits of placentophagy, it is unclear whether consumption of the placenta is advantageous. The placenta is not sterile and one function of the placenta is to protect the fetus from harmful exposure to substances. As a consequence, elements including selenium, cadmium, mercury, and lead, as well as bacteria have been identified in post-term placental tissues,” a paper published by the US’s National Centre for Biotechnology Information a few years ago said.

“Due to in-utero or post-birth contamination bacteria or viruses may remain within post-term placental tissues. The potential adverse effects of these components of the placenta on the postpartum consumer and nursing infant are unknown,” the research paper added.

The demand for placenta within China, however, is big enough for some to try and smuggle it from abroad.

A number of seizures were carried out by Chinese customs in 2019.

In September 2019, customs in the city of Yantai, east China’s Shandong province, intercepted a total of 3,500 injections and capsules of human placenta extract from an inbound flight.

“The 3,300 injections, totalling 6,600ml, and 200 350mg capsules, were found undeclared in the luggage of a Chinese passenger who flew from Japan’s Nagoya to Yantai,” a Xinhua report on the seizure said.

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