Cosmetic Surgery Sparks Alarm

Eye-colour operation surgeon suspended as government probes complaints.

Cosmetic Surgery Sparks Alarm

Eye-colour operation surgeon suspended as government probes complaints.

Friday, 29 January, 2010
A controversial surgical operation carried out in Damascus to change the colour of a Syrian woman’s eyes has raised public fears about the safety of cosmetic surgery in the country.

The surgeon who performed the operation, Mohamad Shoujah, said the procedure that replaced the unidentified patient’s brown irises with artificial green ones was revolutionary.

He told a packed news conference at a hotel in Damascus in December that the surgery could be used not only for cosmetic purposes but also for the restoration of irises damaged as a result of an accident, a birth defect or a tumour.

“The operation consists in removing the iris and doing an implant of a totally new iris. The new iris is made of synthetic fibres. The difference between similar operations that are performed around the world and this surgery is that it removed the entire iris and replaced it with a new one, while other operations do a partial implant or place a new iris above the old one,” he said at the news conference.

But the operation, which reportedly costs 17,000 US dollars, quickly drew fire from the medical profession in Syria, which believes it to be very risky.

Following the news conference, Syrian health minister Rida Said suspended Shoujah’s licence to practice and expressed scepticism about the surgery.

Although the surgical procedure was known in the western world, it was not performed on patients because of the high risks it involved to the eyesight, he told the official Tishreen newspaper.

Said said he would investigate the case, setting up a team of eye surgeons to examine the condition of the patient and check whether the operation had damaged her eyes.

He said that the doctor and the medical facility where the surgery was carried out would be punished as a deterrent. Shoujah has not commented since the news conference.

Medical experts criticised the surgery because they said it exposed a completely healthy patient to unnecessary risks.

“I believe that this operation is a crime because it removed a perfectly good iris and not an infected one,” said Saker Saker, an eye surgeon and a member of the committee tasked with checking on the patient.

“It is certain that the patient will be subject to many risks like higher blood pressure on the eye and acute infections,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether an artificial iris would allow a person to have normal eyesight.

So far, no conclusions have been reached regarding the surgery because the patient refuses to be examined by the ministry-appointed medical team, Saker said.

The patient originally told one news website that she wanted the operation simply because she was fed up with wearing green contact lenses for 15 years. But since the controversy, she has refused to speak to the media.

Critics said that the incident typified Syrian society’s obsession with plastic surgery, which has grown considerably in popularity in recent years.

Many women and, to a lesser extent men, even come from other Arab nations to undergo cosmetic operations in Syria because they are more affordable than in the West.

Most operations cost between 500 and 3,000 dollars. The most popular procedures are rhinoplasty – nose reshaping , breast augmentation, facelifts and liposuction – removing fat.

But malpractice associated with cosmetic surgery is also regularly alleged.

The health ministry says it receives more than 30 complaints a year about botched plastic surgery or medical complications arising from it.

Medical experts say the main problem with the practice is that much plastic surgery is performed by non-specialised doctors, mostly maxillofacial or nose and throat surgeons who do not necessarily have the necessary expertise in cosmetic surgery.

A health ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that punishment imposed by the ministry in cases of malpractice was not severe enough.

The official said that in case of a complaint, doctors are often asked to simply give explanations or pay minimal compensation to their patients.

One surgeon, who wished to remain anonymous, said that unsafe medical procedures that were more dangerous than the controversial eye operation happen regularly in Syrian hospitals.

For Dr Mohamad Haj Khalil, a nose and throat specialist who also carries out plastic surgery, the whole practice of plastic surgery needed to be reviewed.

He said that patients who seek cosmetic operations should be referred first to a psychologist to assess their need for surgery.

Critics accuse the authorities of turning a blind eye not only to the standard of plastic surgery in the country but also to the widespread sale of untested beauty products, such as for breast enlargement or skin bleaching.

Health minister Said in his statement vowed that authorities will put an end to the promotion of beauty products and operations that are presented on TV in the guise of medical treatments and could pose health risks.

“We need to hold accountable all those who hide under a doctor’s cloak to make profit at the expense of citizens,” he said.

Last year, the ministry banned the sale of many beauty products because they were associated with health hazards. One of these products, a cream for removing freckles, proved to contain high levels of mercury, an element harmful to the body’s nervous system.

Nevertheless, many such products are still readily available on the Syrian market.
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