Placenta: is it a normal organ or magical panacea?

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Zhang Xiaoqing, 29-year-old, gave birth to a baby girl in a Shanghai hospital last weekend. Before she was discharged, her mother-in-law asked the hospital for Zhang’s placenta but got refused.

“Why do you want to take it home? It is useless anyway,” said the hospital.

Placenta is an organ necessary in pregnancy, which connects the growing fetus to the uterine wall to transport nutrition of the mother to the baby via blood supply. It is rich in proteins, glucose, vitamins, hormones and enzymes. In traditional Chinese medicine, placenta is also called “Ziheche”, warm in nature and beneficial for human body.

Though being refused, Zhang and her family insisted on taking back the placenta.

“I was quite determined to take it back in case that it would be eaten by or sold to strangers by the hospital. Many people are waiting in lines to get placentas,” said Zhang. “The hospital wants to make profits through our ‘free’ placentas.”

Listed as a nourishing medicine in Pharmacopoeia of People’s Republic of China, placenta is nutritious enough to help strengthen body’s resistance and anti-allergic ability, according to modern studies.

70-year-old Che Xiaochu is a retired doctor. When she was still working, one of her friends having a son with serious asthma, asked her to get placentas from hospital. Che said, after drinking water with placenta powder for one year, the boy’s illness was completely healed and never reoccurred.

Due to the wide-believed magical effects, some hospitals try to get and conserve them from newly-become mothers. According to Che, for relatives who had no idea about the use of or how to deal with placentas, a number of doctors and nurses just keep a blind eye to their ignorance and take away their placentas, and then sell them to drug companies or those who want to eat.

Zhou Yuping, 54, eats one placenta per year, expecting to cure her gastric ulcer. She asks her sister-in-law, a doctor in hospital to get placentas.

“Almost every doctor or nurse has been requested by their friends and family to get placentas. Thus, if you don’t have acquaintances in hospital, it is nearly impossible to get them. However, demand exceeds supply. Even though you have someone inside, there is always a long queue in front of you,” said Zhou.

Zhou usually cuts placenta into shreds, mixes it with eggs and scrambles it. She also minces them with meat and makes them into meat balls or stuffing for dumplings.

“I heard that placenta stew is highly nutritious. However, it will be a big challenge for diners, because the placenta has a very strong smell of blood, which is difficult to get rid of,” said Zhou. She also mentioned a more accessible approach, baking and pulverizing the placenta and taking them in capsule form.

Zhou said, one placenta usually cost 20 or 30 yuan and it still enjoyed good sale when the price was raised to 50 or even 100 yuan .

In some rural areas where sons are preferred to daughters, people still believe that eating placentas can give a greater chance for a woman to have a boy instead of a girl.

One of the netizens called “panyria” said in an online forum that her aunt who had already had two daughters did give birth to a boy after eating placentas. However, “panyria” wasn’t sure whether it was more of coincidence or really involved some scientific reasons.

Placentas are also “popular” among drug companies.

Last month (in 2014), a minibus was caught by the police, carrying 200 human placentas in an expressway in Jiangxi Province. The driver admitted that those were brought from hospitals and would be sold to drug companies.

Also, in 2010, a hospital in Henan Province, illegally sold 191 placentas to Anhui Province. The hospital got placentas for free but sold them at a price of 30 yuan for each. New mothers were deprived rights of getting back their own placentas, even though some of them tried for many times.

Since 2005, Chinese Ministry of Health applied relevant regulations clearly claiming that delivery women are the owner of their placentas, and it is forbidden to sell and buy placentas.

Lu Caihua, an obstetrician of Shengzhou People’s Hospital, Zhejiang Province, said, “A lot of people have strong belief in placentas’ magical effects. But, sometimes, this belief is blind.”

She said, if the delivery woman has infectious disease, such as hepatitis B and HIV, it will be dangerous for the diner to get infected, for some virus cannot be killed by high temperature. Besides, except from caesarean, the placenta must pass through the birth canal to be delivered. During the time, it might be infected by various bacteria.

“Placenta is not suitable for all patients. Since it is warm in nature, it will break the balance of yin and yang, and affect normal endocrine of some people. It might aggravate the illness instead,” said Lu. “It is also ironic that certain basic nutrition, like protein and glucose, can be actually obtained from people’s daily diet, such as meat, fish and vegetables. In this way, placenta shows no apparent advantage.”

Lu is also a mother of a 20-year-old daughter. She said, after she gave birth, her mother-in-law took the placenta from the hospital and buried it in a secret place.

“It used to be a part of my body. My family and I would felt unhappy if someone ate it. And I didn’t want to eat it either, because it would be like eating myself.”

Liu Xiaofan, 29, is looking forward to her baby which will be born in this August. She would like to protect her right of her placenta even though she knew little about how to deal with her placenta.

“I won’t hesitate to get back my placenta since it is a part of my body. I own the right to decide how to use it. It’s immoral and unreasonable for hospitals to take away others’ placentas,” Liu said.

Although young people know little about the traditional ways of dealing placentas, the elderly still have superstitious beliefs to bury placentas in a secret place or to throw them into rivers.

Xiang Lihua, a mother of a three-year-old daughter, said her mother buried her placenta in the garden of her neighborhood. And a friend of her choose to plant a sapling near the place where her own placenta was buried.

In Chinese tradition, it is believed that the placenta hold partial spirits of the mothers. Leaving it around or letting someone else eat it might do harm to their children and offspring.

. . .

By YANG Yuqing & LI Yi

2014

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