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Pathologists suffer hate-mail attacks in organs backlash

July 5, 2001

Pathologists who work with children have become victims of hate mail and personal attacks after the controversy over organs taken from dead babies at Alder Hey hospital, doctors were told yesterday.

The British Medical Association's annual meeting heard that doctors were being driven out of their jobs because of a public backlash over the Alder Hey scandal, which could jeopardise research into new diseases and the training of doctors.

"Thought police" from the NHS were raiding offices and laboratories throughout the health service to find and confiscate human tissue and organs kept without the consent of patients' relatives, the conference in Bournemouth was told.

The Alder Hey scandal came to light last year when a report revealed that thousands of children who died at the children's hospital in Liverpool had been stripped of their organs without the consent of parents, and that up to 100,000 tissue samples and organs might be retained nationwide. Eighteen doctors have been referred to the General Medical Council for investigation.

Dr Anne Thorpe, chairman of the BMA's pathology committee, said there had been tragic consequences for caring doctors as a result of the public backlash.

She had been approached by one "very dedicated and caring" paediatric pathologist who was avoided by neighbours and whose children had been bullied at school after the report was published.

Other children taunted her children by shouting "Your mother chops up dead babies for a living". The woman was so distressed she was now retraining for another specialism, Dr Thorpe said.

She told the conference: "I was rung up by a paediatric pathologist and mother who told me there is a hate website available for people to post messages about pathologists."

Dr Thorpe said that of 40 posts in the UK for children's pathologists, 10 were vacant and there was only one medical student training.

Bereaved relatives asked for permission to store tissue or organs for research had to fill in a three-page form, she said.

Dr Geoffrey Lewis, an anaesthetist, said the controversy had resulted in "thought police searching in filing cabinets and behind books looking for specimens, slides or anything else" which might have been retained without consent. Material that had been used for teaching for decades was being taken and destroyed.

"This is absolute madness because at the end of the day the law allows some pathologists to handle this material and keep it," he said.

Some of the material was "of priceless value" for educational purposes, he added.

Dr Peter Dangerfield, a medical school course director, said the consequences of disposing of stored tissue and organs could be far-reaching for research and education of medical students. Without stored medical samples, it would be much more difficult to investigate new diseases such as variant CJD, or to study better treatment for cancer.

By Michael Durham, Health Correspondent,Copyright © 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd


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