Doctors `routinely took organs from children'

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The Independent Online
THE BODIES of children who died at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool were subjected to routine stripping of their organs on a scale unequalled elsewhere, an investigation has revealed.

The hospital's own inquiry, the first of four into the nationwide practice, found that at Alder Hey the removal of organs was so common it became standard. Parents were kept in the dark and most had no idea they were burying their children without their hearts or brains.

Between 1988 and 1995, the period covered by the inquiry, a total of almost 3,000 organs were retained, including 767 brains, 611 hearts, 773 lungs and 787 abdominal organs. In 587 cases, a full set of organs was removed, the inquiry found.

The scandal came to light in the autumn after the hospital reported it had discovered a cache of organs in the Myrtle Street laboratory of Liverpool University that it never knew it had. It launched an immediate inquiry chaired by Dr Stephen Gould, a consultant pathologist, which reported yesterday. In his report, Dr Gould said the "extent of organ retention is far more than would normally be expected" but that since 1996 it had reverted to the level found elsewhere. His investigation had been hampered, he said, by the fact that many post-mortem examinations were not completed.

Calling for an investigation of the department of foetal and infant pathology, responsible for carrying out the post-mortem examinations, he said it should examine how far shortage of resources played a part in the low completion rate.

Professor Dick van Velzen, head of the department from 1988 to 1994, has defended his practice of removing organs on the grounds that he did not have the money to complete the post-mortem examinations and was saving the organs for later investigation. Dr Gould said consultants and managers at the hospital must have been aware of Mr Van Velzen's practices.

The inquiry also found that of the 845 children who had at least one organ retained, more than half (489) were hospital post-mortem examinations for which parental consent is required. The standard consent form allows "tissue" to be retained for diagnosis, teaching or research but there is dispute about whether this covers organs. The remainder were coroners' examinations for which parental consent is not required.

Publishing the report yesterday, Hilary Rowland, chief executive of Alder Hey, said: "We agree with the report and welcome its findings. The Myrtle Street collection was clearly unacceptable and we apologise for any distress caused to parents." She appealed to parents to help devise new consent forms for permission to retain tissue and organs for medical education and research. "We are asking for their help to ensure this never happens again," she said.

As the hospital began returning organs to parents for burial last month, public revulsion at the practice grew prompting Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, to announce an independent inquiry. The Government's chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, is also chairing a national review of the practice; and the public inquiry into the Bristol heart babies disaster, which first revealed the practice last March, is due to produce an interim report in the spring.

Since the scandal was revealed the hospital has imposed a ban on organ retention and set up a helpline to counsel shocked families.