Bristol answers tabloid attacks

May 3, 2002

Bristol University has defended one of its professors against tabloid accusations of taking organs from deceased babies without their families'

consent. The university said the stories could damage valuable and life-saving research.

On April 20 the Daily Mail claimed that organs were taken without parental consent from 88 babies who died between May 1985 and April 1989 in the Avon area and were used as part of a study by Peter Fleming into sudden infant death syndrome (Sids).

A statement from the university denied this. "Some of the media have stated that organs and tissues were retained without parental knowledge or consent for use in Professor Fleming's research. This is untrue."

The university acknowledged that organs were retained in Bristol - and in centres across the UK and worldwide - but not for Professor Fleming's research. It said: "At least one media report also declared that Professor Fleming had broken the coroner's rules on postmortem examinations. That is untrue as well."

Professor Fleming's research into Sids and subsequent advice that babies should sleep on their backs has been estimated to have saved 100,000 lives worldwide.

The university wants its statement to be distributed to all GPs in the area. "Already we have reports of parents who have actually benefited from Professor Fleming's work... asking GPs to give them information," a spokesman said.

John Lilleyman, president of the Royal College of Pathologists, said:

"Procedures around organ retention have now been tightened up... Professor Fleming is an outstanding paediatrician who has been demonised.

"Pathologists are constantly looking over their shoulder, worried about what samples to take. This is making postmortems less reliable. And researchers are terrified of applying for and using samples. In a few years time we will see a serious dip in research output as a result."

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