Bargain plastic surgery flourishes in Egypt

“Had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the whole face of the world would have changed,” French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said three and half centuries ago.

Today, it would cost Egypt’s ancient queen and beauty as little as $300 to get a nose job in her native country, but specialists and disfigured patients might advise her against it.

With Egyptian regulation of cosmetic surgery standards less than strict, relatively painless fees have incited more and more patients to go under the knife and chisel up their self-esteem.

“Massive discounts until the end of April,” trumpets one splashy magazine advertisement of the kind that abound in the Egyptian press every week. “Arm or thigh liposuction for 1 500 pounds [$260] only.”

A qualified Egyptian surgeon charges around $900 for the same operation, which can fetch at least $2 000 dollars in the United States and $3 000 in Britain.

At the other end of the phone numbers provided in the newspapers are shadowy clinics often tucked away in the grimy basement of a high-rise in one of Cairo’s congested suburbs and run by physicians with dubious credentials.

A far cry from the modern sterilised atmosphere of the luxury centres where patients are surrounded by an army of friendly nurses, psychologists and occupational therapists at all times.

“Prices for cosmetic surgery in Egypt can be 60% to 70% lower than for corresponding treatment in the UK. So by choosing to have your treatment in Egypt you can make substantial savings on cost and enjoy the riches of this amazing country,” advises a British website on plastic surgery.

As elective cosmetic surgery operations are not covered by insurance, the industry is often price-driven and has also seen the development of a new type of tourism.

All-inclusive packages—which have given birth to unlikely idioms such as “tummy tuck holidays”—are the vogue and have tended to develop in popular tourist destinations like Egypt.

Some historians argue that Egypt may be one of the birthplaces of cosmetic surgery and that reconstructive facial operations were already performed under the Pharaohs, as early as 3 400BC.

But Dr Mohammed Kadry warns that some of his colleagues’ skills may well be as rudimentary as those of their illustrious ancestors.

“Patients undergo surgery by the dozens every day in these centres, some of which employ medical students or general practicioners” to cut costs, says Kadry, a member of the Egyptian Society of Reconstructive and Plastic Surgeons.

“They maintain a high turnover ...
That way if a problem arises, these centres can always say ‘Sorry this doctor doesn’t work for us anymore’,” he explains.

Upon visiting one such centre in central Cairo, an Agence France-Presse reporter was immediately offered a “Nefertiti nose” for a few hundred dollars by a doctor without a diploma.

Ibrahim Iyada, a certified surgeon who teaches at Cairo University, described such an operation as nonsensical, suggesting that patients entrusting their facial makeover to such “doctors” risked ending up with a profile closer to that of the Sphinx.

“These centres are paying millions of dollars to monopolise the commercial space,” says Kadry, whose association grouping some 160 surgeons has been trying to raise public awareness.

But recurring accounts of freakish mishaps by bogus surgeons and even the much publicised deaths of two women in September 2003 from complications after liposuction have failed to dissuade patients from flocking to bargain centres.

“It’s the not the competence of the doctors but divive intervention that saves some of these patients,” Iyada says, adding that he receives the visit of at least one disfigured patient every month.

Yet most of these rogue clinics mushrooming around Cairo operate with licences duly delivered by the department of medical centres at the health ministry.

“We try to do our best at controlling the situation,” says Mohammed Abdel Shafi, an official from the department.

“We want our department to have legal powers on this issue and not just administrative,” he adds.

He nevertheless admits that many of the centres that were shut down after complaints were filed following surgical blunders promptly reopened in a different location and under a new name, but with the same professional ethics.

Kadry deplores that the health ministry is too busy weathering the bird flu crisis to crack down on bogus cosmetic surgery clinics. - AFP

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