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Patients given transplants using plundered body parts

Sep 23, 2006 | Gulf Times

British hospitals are at the centre of an unfolding scandal after it has emerged that at least 40 patients have been given transplants using body parts plundered by a corpse-snatching ring.

The body of veteran BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke was one of more than 1,000 allegedly stolen from funeral parlours by an American mafia ring and sold for use in bone grafts.

It has now emerged that 25 UK hospitals bought tissue that had been snatched from corpses - prompting fears that patients could have been exposed to a range of diseases.

There are fears that the horrific practice could have exposed British patients to HIV, syphilis or other illnesses transmitted through contaminated body parts.

The scandal is reminiscent of earlier scares associated with transfusions and transplants.

Two years ago, thousands of people were told that they might have been infected with the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy through contaminated blood plasma products. There have also been scares about HIV and hepatitis C infection from blood products.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) on Thursday named the 25 hospitals where potentially contaminated human body parts were grafted into patients. It revealed that 82 pieces of bone had been bought to be used in procedures such as hip and bone operations and were distributed to the hospitals by a Swindon-based firm called Plus Orthopaedics.

A spokesperson for the health watchdog said the risk of catching an infection from the stolen bones was "negligible" as the bones had been sterilised. However, some of the affected patients have been contacted and offered screening for disease.

The scandal first surfaced last October when it was revealed that the New Jersey-based company Biomedical Tissue Services (BTS) had been selling bones, ligaments and skin for use in transplants allegedly removed illegally from corpses. Bone is said to have been taken illegally from American corpses at funeral parlours without the deceased’s prior consent and without the necessary checks to make sure the bodies were free of disease.

Cooke, whose Radio 4 programme Letter From America ran for 58 years, died from lung cancer aged 95 last December. His bones were cut out and sent to BTS before he was cremated.

BTS boss Michael Mastromarino, who faces body harvesting charges, is said to have paid £500 per corpse. The company, which has been shut down, supplied bones and other body parts to the NHS.

Many of the bones supplied by BTS were recalled after its scavenging was uncovered. The US Food and Drug Administration has warned that many patients could have been exposed to HIV and other diseased, but also insists the risk of infection is minimal

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