Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

CHINA: Quest for Beauty Becomes A Health Risk

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Dec 21 2010 (IPS) - After her run to the finals of the 2005 “Super Girl” talent contest, Wang Bei, from central China’s Hubei province, lived on the cusp of pop stardom. In November, Wang opted for cosmetic surgery in an effort to improve her chances of success.

But the 24-year-old’s death in the operating room, officially ruled an accident, has prompted nationwide outrage over the dismal standards of China’s rapidly growing cosmetic surgery industry.

About 2.2 million surgeries were conducted in China in 2009, comprising 12.7 percent of the global total, a report by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS) found. State media have put the figure above three million surgeries. According to the Chinese Association of Plastics and Aesthetics, there are 200,000 people working in the industry, which earns 2.3 billion U.S. dollars a year.

The most common surgeries in China in 2009 were breast augmentation, liposuction and eyelid surgery, ISAPS found.

China’s cosmetic surgery industry has until now been largely unregulated, and many unqualified surgeons, lured by big pay cheques, are entering the profession without adequate training and experience. According to the China Consumers’ Association, over half of all surgeries require follow-up procedures because of problems with the initial surgery.

Health authorities confirmed that Wang died on Nov. 15 in Wuhan, Hubei’s capital, as a result of complications from anesthetic during a “facial bone grinding surgery,” according to state-owned Xinhua News Agency. Wang’s mother was also having work done on her jaw at the hospital at the same time.

The news sparked an immediate outcry from netizens, while some questioned Wang’s decision in the first place.

“I hope the tragedy can raise people’s awareness of the slack supervision of the plastic surgery industry,” one web user said, according to Xinhua. “She’s so pretty, why bother having surgery?” another netizen, with the username “short life,” asked on the popular chat service, QQ.

The Ministry of Health called on local authorities to step up supervision of the cosmetic surgery industry. “The investigation results should be made public without delay,” the ministry said.

Chen Huaran, an expert on cosmetic surgery who has worked in the industry for over two decades, says rising incomes and a growing fixation on beauty are fuelling the trend. He says the industry is growing 200 percent per year in China.

“The overwhelming majority of people who received cosmetic surgery in the past were actors or actress in the entertainment circle,” Chen tells IPS. “But now a growing number of ordinary people are coming to receive cosmetic surgery. They want to become prettier to find a better job, or a good marriage. Some officials are coming to make themselves look young.”

In recent years, state media have run reports about cosmetic surgery’s growing popularity among teens and college graduates looking for jobs. China has held a “Miss Plastic Surgery” contest in the past, and in 2009 a patient angry over a bad nose job kidnapped and threatened the life of a nurse in Foshan, Guangdong province.

According to statistics from the China Consumers’ Association, there were 2,970 complaints filed in 2009 about medical procedures, a large portion of which were people who underwent unsuccessful plastic surgery operations.

While China issued training standards for reconstructive plastic surgery in 2010, the country still lacks any regulations for cosmetic surgery. The industry also suffers from inadequate supervision and management, Chen says.

But the government has promised to take steps to better regulate the industry.

In November, the Ministry of Health organised a working conference on the cosmetic surgery industry. Ma Xiaowei, vice health minister, said at the conference that the government would work to improve laws and regulations and soon would require cosmetic surgeons to receive special training in order to practice the trade, something required in most developed countries, including the United States.

Aside from hospitals, minor cosmetic surgery is also performed at beauty parlors, salons and fitness clubs. Customers are made to believe the doctors are well-qualified to perform the surgeries, when in fact the vast majority lacks special training, Chen says.

“In China, motivated by huge profits, some surgeons carry out these types of operations without any special training,” Chen points out.

Li Bin, chief manager at Yimeier Plastic Surgery Hospital, one of China’s top cosmetic surgery facilities, says the “black clinics” offer surgeries at very low prices, but with untrained doctors and inadequate emergency facilities.

“Beauty parlors or institutions like this are not qualified to perform these surgeries, but a large quantity of surgeries are being carried out at such places. Also the unqualified surgeons at small institutions are performing complex cosmetic surgeries….If an emergency happens during the process, it is very dangerous,” Li says.

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