British Health chief attacks 'shocking' body parts scandal
(Filed: 30/01/2001)

MORE than 100,000 hearts, brains, lungs and other organs are still being held by hospitals and medical schools across England, according to a report by the Government's Chief Medical Officer. A second report has accused a pathologist at Liverpool's Alder Hey Hospital of "systematically stripping organs" from dead children - and recommended he should never be allowed to practise again.

The Health Secretary Alan Milburn said criminal prosecutions may follow the huge public outcry over the Alder Hey scandal which has sent shockwaves through the medical profession.

Mr Milburn told MPs that the inquiry report, chaired by Michael Redfern QC, into the "unforgivable" events had been referred to the Merseyside Police and passed to the Director of Public prosecutions.

Making a public apology to parents and families of the dead children, Mr Milburn pledged: "Those who did wrong will now be held to account."

He said pathologist Prof Dick van Velzen, who worked at Alder Hey between 1988 and 1995, had "systematically ordered the unethical and illegal stripping of every organ from every child who had a post mortem".

The law will be changed to prevent similar events from happening again and ensure that "informed consent" must be given before specified organs or tissues can be taken from bodies, said Mr Milburn.

The Chief Medical Officer, Prof Liam Donaldson's census of organ retention disclosed that thousands of people may not know that they have buried their loved ones without their vital organs.

The findings of his investigation could mean that scores more hospitals may be asked to return hearts and other organs taken from patients over the past three decades.

The extent of the practice will be "shocking" to the public, he said.

And he slammed the current law governing the removal and retention of organs from dead patients as "unclear, ambiguous and ageing". Some hospitals may have even "ignored and deviated from the law" in retaining body parts for decades for no purpose.

Doctors have been more concerned about getting organs for research and education than about the feelings of patients and their families, the report concluded.

Grieving relatives were not told that by signing a consent form for a post mortem examination, they were allowing pathologists to strip their loved ones of many of their organs, the report said.

Prof Donaldson recommended major changes in the law to ensure parents, patients and relatives are giving "informed consent" to the removal of organs during post mortem examinations.

He said: "The unsatisfactory nature of the agreement forms, the lack of information and the lack of counselling support or advice when a signature was being sought at a distressing time suggests that in many cases, agreement to retention fell well short of being fully informed consent.

"For many, therefore, the fact that their loved one's organs are still being held will be a surprise and a shock to them.

"Custom and practice developed within the framework of law which relied too heavily on a traditional and rather paternalistic attitude in which the benefit of teaching and research were seen as self-evident truths and the wishes and feelings of individual parents and families were not sufficiently recognised.

"The overwhelming conclusion of the majority of commentators is that the system and the law in this area must be changed so that proper involvement of families can enable their support to be gained in the pursuit of the conquest of disease and excellence in standards of health care."

The former Health Secretary Frank Dobson ordered a census of organs and body tissue held by the NHS as the full scale of the Alder Hey scandal began to emerge.

The census found that, at the end of 1999, 210 NHS trusts and medical schools were holding 104,300 organs, body parts, and entire bodies of still born babies and foetuses.

Of these, around 54,300 organs had been taken from 27,600 patients, including 9,800 children, between 1970 and 1999. The rest removed and retained before 1970.

The organs cache includes more than 30,000 brains, 15,000 hearts and 10,000 lungs. In addition, 480,600 samples of tissue taken from dead patients are being held.;sessionid=IPVH3HSMIS1GFQFIQMFSM5WAVCBQ0JVC?xml=/news/2001/01/30/norg30.xml