(EMBARGOED UNTIL 1AM FEB 1 NZDT)
By Kent Atkinson of NZPA
Wellington, Feb 1 NZPA – New Zealand’s Government cannot avoid all the potential risks posed by xenotransplantation – using animal tissues in humans – simply by banning the practice, its ethics advisors say.
The Bioethics Council said today in a discussion paper that ill New Zealanders denied such treatments in their own country could seek them overseas, then bring back home the potential risks.
These could include contaminating the blood supply if it turned out their animal organ was diseased, or even infecting other people if a "donor" pig organ had mutated an animal virus into one affecting humans.
The Government’s proposed approach – preventing xenotransplantation from taking place in New Zealand until the implications were fully considered – did not specifically address the issue of xenotourism.
"Xenotourism is therefore the aspect of xenotransplantation that most urgently requires regulation," said the council, which is chaired by former Labour MP Jill White, of Palmerston North, who has also previously headed the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma).
"Some (people) believe that, given the difficulties of regulating xenotourism, it would be better to have well-regulated xenotransplantation here than to take the risk of people going to less well-regulated countries for xenotransplantation and bringing disease back," the Bioethics Council said.
"If the New Zealand Government prohibits all research into, and the medical use of, xenotransplantation on the basis of public health risk, there is still the problem of xenotourism."
Xenotourists would be New Zealanders who, in desperation, travelled overseas to countries that did allow xenotransplantation, underwent the procedure and then returned to New Zealand, or people from overseas who had xenografts – such as a liver from a genetically-engineered pig – and then visited New Zealand.
"Because this may be done covertly there would be no possibility of even minimal monitoring of such people," the council said.
"Management of these risks needs to be considered even if xenotransplantation is prohibited in New Zealand".
It said xenotransplantation was already occurring in other countries, "perhaps without the careful selection and husbandry of source animals needed to reduce the risk of cross-species infection".
Public health measures to manage xenotourists would be "ethically controversial" and could include:
* A requirement to disclose information about xenografts to medical authorities;
* A register of recipients;
* Regular checks on the health of recipients, including taking blood samples;
* Informing the recipient’s relations and close contacts that they have had xenografts;
* Restricting the travel of recipients, and in extreme cases, quarantining recipients.
"Many of these measures would involve a severe infringement of an individual’s right to confidentiality, to refuse medical treatment, and to freedom of movement," the council said in its paper, Animal to Human Transplantation.
There would need to be an international agreement on banning anyone who received an animal transplant from donating their organs or tissues – even in countries such as Spain where it was assumed consent had been given for organ harvesting.
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