The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists recently published an unsettling four-part series on the sources of biological material that is used in such common medical devices as dental implants, heart valve replacements, and skin and bone grafts. Its focus was on the US market, but it documented sourcing practices both in the United States and offshore that are, to say the least, questionable. One egregious example involved a New York city-based operation run by a dentist named Michael Mastromarino, now serving federal prison time. More details on this case are available from stories in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, and Philadelphia Magazine.
Most Canadians will remember the disastrous health consequences of failure to prevent contamination of the blood supply – a crisis that could have been controlled effectively by decision-makers within our borders, although it wasn’t. The ICIJ series describes inadequately documented trade in other human biological materials, both within and across national borders. In the United States, efforts to control hazardous imports are minimal and ineffective. Health professionals interviewed for the series pointed out, for instance, that WalMart routinely tracks merchandise using bar codes, but these are not used to track potentially deadly tissue imports.
How well are Canadians protected from such hazards? Whom can we ask, and how much trust should we place in the answers? This is not a rhetorical question, but it’s one with important implications for public safety, and I invite responses from anyone who can shed light on the matter. If no one can, then maybe it’s time for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to make this a strategic priority?