London: Twenty-five British hospitals have bought tissue which may have been taken from diseased corpses in the UK body snatchers scandal.
And at least 40 British patients have been given transplants using body parts plundered by the mafia gang who stole more than 1,000 bodies from US funeral parlours. Most of the parts have been used in bone and dental grafts.
The body of veteran BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke was among those stolen. and there are fears that potentially inadequate screening may have exposed British patients to HIV or syphilis.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency yesterday named the 25 hospitals where potentially contaminated body parts were grafted into British patients.
It revealed that 82 pieces of bone had been bought to be used in procedures such as hip operations and were distributed to the hospitals by the Swindon-based firm Plus Orthopaedics.
A spokesman for the health watchdog said the risk of catching an infection from the stolen bones was ‘negligible’ as they had been sterilised.
Normally, once tissue has been removed from a donor’s body and screened for disease, it is soaked in various solutions to prevent transmission of bacteria and viruses.
Nevertheless affected patients have been contacted and offered screening for diseases.
The scandal emerged in October last year when it was discovered hat the New Jersey-based company Biomedical Tissue Services (BTS) had been selling bones, ligaments and skin for use in transplants which had allegedly been removed illegally from corpses.
Bone is said to have been taken illegally from American corpses at funeral parlours without 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 owner 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 the scandal broke.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which ensures medicines and medical devices are safe, has tracked down affected patients in the UK and alerted their doctors. It initially-thought 77 parts had been sent to the UK but has now increased the figure to 82.
‘We ensured that affected hospitals were contacted, advising them that the infection risk was negligible, so that clinicians could decide what advice they should give to their patients,’ a spokesman said.
Campaigners called for tougher controls on the import of human body parts into the UK.
Professor Stephen Wigmore, chairman of the ethics committee of the British Transplantation Society, said: ‘No one would want to think they’d received tissue from someone from whom it had been taken against their will. It’s cases like this that highlight holes in the law.’
The scandal has exposed a growing trade in bones and tissue which are harvested abroad and shipped to Britain.
Shortages of organs and tissue from this country have been blamed on the fall-out from Alder Hey and the Bristol babies scandal, where organs were removed without consent.
There are currently no laws governing the import and export of body parts into the UK.
The Government organisation responsible, the Human Tissue Authority, said yesterday that it does not know which countries import skin, bone and ligaments to Britain, nor does it know the quantities shipped.
The American scam was uncovered when a funeral parlour owner in Brooklyn discovered records of the bone theft and called in police.
It was found that the bones of some corpses had been replaced with plastic pipes.
In the case of Cooke, documents listed the cause of death as a heart attack and lowered his age to 85, investigators said.
Mastromarino and three others have pleaded not guilty to the charges