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Health Insight March 2001:
Alder Hey organs: the long-term implications
 
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Revelations about the practice of retaining human organs, practised by pathologists at Liverpool's Alder Hey Hospital and elsewhere, have prompted widespread public anger in recent months. (Also under fire in the media during February was Salisbury District Hospital, which sold samples of skin, removed during NHS plastic surgery operations, for research at the nearby Porton Down chemical warfare facility.) Now there are concerns about the possible implications for organ donation programmes and for medical research.

The BMA says anecdotal reports from transplant surgeons suggest that the number of organs being donated has gone into decline. The BMA will be redoubling its efforts to promote donation. A spokeswoman for London's King's College Hospital said, 'It concerns us that people are getting organ retention and organ donation mixed up and it is important that people consider organ donation'. Renowned heart surgeon Professor Magdi Yacoub has also expressed his concerns about the organ supply. Health secretary Alan Milburn chaired a 'transplant summit' at the DoH, at which he said a 3m scheme would be implemented intended to double the number of organ donors. Some national newspapers are also running campaigns to encourage people to become donors.

Medical researchers have also expressed fears that a shortage of tissue might hamper their work. They are in addition unclear as to how the new rules regarding the consent of patients and their families will affect research on tissue already being held by laboratories. Professor Phil Quirke, head of histopathology at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals said, 'We desperately need guidance on this. We don't know whether we should continue cataloguing this tissue or whether we should try to obtain patient consent retrospectively'.

Meanwhile, the Alder Hey affair itself is still making news. The Dutch pathologist Dick van Velzen has been struck off the UK medical register. He has also been dismissed by the Dutch hospital where he has been working recently. Dr van Velzen says he has been made a scapegoat and claims he was let down by poor management at Alder Hey.

Sources:
Guardian 3 AND 10 February
BMA News Review 10 February
The Times 24 February
Press release (DoH)
BBC Online
BMJ 24 February
Health Service Journal 1 February


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