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BMA Conference Wednesday, 4 July, 2001, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
Pathologists 'target of hate campaign'
Alder Hey hospital
Alder Hey scandal has had knock-on effects
Pathologists say they are the target of a hate campaign following the scandal surrounding the retention of organs at the Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool.

The British Medical Association's annual conference in Bournemouth heard how there has also been a drop in the number of post mortems being carried out because of the negative publicity.

Fewer post mortems are being performed because doctors are reluctant to ask for consent and relatives unwilling to give it.

Professor van Velzen
Professor van Velzen: Suspended by GMC
But fears of a drop in the numbers of organs donated for transplant have proved unfounded.

Thousands of dead children had their organs removed at Liverpool's Alder Hey Hospital over a seven-year period, without their parents' consent.

In some cases, it was many years after their child's death that parents learnt organs had been kept.

Some families have had to have funeral after funeral as lungs, brains, hearts and other organs were returned to them.

Hate website

The chair of the BMA's pathology committee, Dr Anne Thorpe, told the conference some of her colleagues had received hate mail following newspaper coverage of the Alder Hey scandal, and told how their children had been taunted in the playground.


Morale is at an all-time low

Professor James Underwood,
Royal College of Pathologists
She also told how pathologists had left the speciality because of the pressures on them.

And she told BBC News Online she had been told of a website where abuse was posted against doctors, with messages such as "How can anyone cut up a dead baby?".

She added: "Post-mortem rates in most hospitals have absolutely plummeted. One of the reasons they are still important is in the auditing of people's work."

BMA representatives unanimously backed a motion calling for histopathologists to be allowed to retain post mortem specimens.

The motion warned that unless this was allowed it would be difficult to confirm diagnoses, and would jeopardise the education of medical students.

Professor James Underwood, vice president of the Royal College of Pathologists, said: "Morale is at an all-time low. "Pathologists and coroners are very reluctant to allow the retention of tissue from post-mortems, which means it is difficult to establish a cause of death.

"Bereaved family members are not getting accurate information about the causes of death, and the implications of this are that is affecting mortality statistics and the detection of adverse side effects of new drugs."

Consent

Steve Baker, of the Bristol babies group, said public trust in the medical profession had to be rebuilt.

Dr Michael Wilks: changes needed to the consent rules
Dr Michael Wilks: changes needed to the consent rules
"If we can take that element of doubt away, we would be fully supportive of this need for research, but it has to be done in a structured way."

Dr Michael Wilks, chairman of the BMA's ethics committee, told the BBC how much research on tissues and organs helped medical science.

"For instance, we would know very little about the new form of CJD if we hadn't had a huge tissue bank to look back on."

But he said change was needed: "The BMA do want legal change to put consent laws in a statutory framework."

He added that doctors and pathologists were reluctant to ask permission to retain organs because of the current situation.

Vacant posts

Dr Thorpe said a quarter of paediatric pathology posts in England are currently unfilled.

The BMA conference was be warned of some of the consequences.

If post mortems are not carried out it will be harder to find out why some babies are stillborn.

It will also hamper research into diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, the conference will be told.

A number of doctors named in the report into the organ scandal at Alder Hey Children's Hospital have been reported to the General Medical Council.

Professor Dick van Velzen, head of foetal and infant pathology at Alder Hey between 1988 and 1995, was suspended by the GMC.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Daniel Sandford
"Many people stopped agreeing to post mortems"
Dr Anne Thorpe
"This has dealt a near-fatal blow to the important specialty of paediatric pathology"
The BBC's Nick Ravenscroft
reports on the choices facing the child pathologist

Key stories

Background

The pathologist

The families

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