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Breast implant women to be placed on register: Health department says record of surgery is only a precaution

ALL WOMEN who have had operations to enlarge or replace breasts are to be traced and placed on a national register, the Department of Health has announced.

From next month, the names of all women who undergo surgery - whether for medical or cosmetic reasons - will be logged into a national computer at the Wessex Centre for Plastic and Maxillofacial Surgery in Salisbury. Doctors will also be asked to log the 100,000 or so patients who have already had operations.

The Department of Health said the move was precautionary. 'The register is about reassuring patients that we know where they are should there be any problems in the future, rather than saying there is a problem which needs addressing now.'

There is conflicting medical evidence on the safety of silicon gel breast implants. In the US at least 30,000 women are reported to have had implants removed after health scares. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of silicon implants because of suspicions they could cause painful auto-immune diseases such as arthritis.

In several cases, implants have burst, leaking silicon into the body. In others, the tissue round the silicon has hardened. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association last autumn also revealed that breast implants can make it harder to screen women accurately for cancer.

One American woman won dollars 7.3m ( pounds 4.9m) from the implant manufacturer Dow Corning, after her silicon bags burst, while a Texas jury awarded dollars 25m ( pounds 16.4m) in damages to another who claimed that silicon gel breast implants caused an auto-immune disease after rupturing.

Following the ban in the US, Kenneth Calman, the Government's Chief Health Officer, wrote to doctors advising them that while there had been suggestions of possible links between implants and cancer and auto- immune disease, there was no firm basis for a similar embargo in Britain.

But the Lancet medical journal reported last December that 30 British women had become seriously ill with symptoms resembling rheumatoid arthritis. It said another 88 cases resembling auto-immune disease were associated with the implants.

Dr Calman wrote again in March on the findings of a group of independent experts. 'There is no evidence of an increased risk of connective tissue disease in patients who have undergone silicon gel breast implants and therefore no scientific case for changing practice or policy in the UK,' he concluded.

But uncertainty has remained, contributing to a sharp fall in implants. For example, the National Hospital for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery in Bromsgrove, Hereford and Worcester, carried out 66 implants last year compared with 401 in 1991.