What Were Former USSR Breast Implants, Actually?

Yuval Azoulay
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Yuval Azoulay

So what exactly was that yellow stuff injected directly into the breasts of women who had breast enlargement surgery in Russia years ago? The Health Ministry launched an investigation a few days ago to identify it, after two women suffering from chest pain and disfigurement checked into Safed's Seiff hospital. Both women had infections in the chest area, apparently resulting from the substance injected into their breasts in the mid-90s at a Ukraine medical center.

The two women later immigrated to Israel, and now reside in the North. Both are in their mid-30s. Neither felt well in the past few months: One complained of sharp pains in her chest, and the other reported serious disfigurement. A medical exam revealed the chilling extent: One breast had swollen to three times the size of the other.

In the past month and a half, both women underwent surgery at Rebecca Seiff Government Hospital, where the unidentified material was pumped out of their breasts. "All we know about the material is from the women themselves, who say they were told at the time it is called 'Bio-Gel.' It is unknown to us, unknown, unidentified and unrecognized by modern medicine. It is completely undocumented in medical literature," the plastic surgeon who performed the operations said yesterday.

Dr. Kasis Shukri said one of the women was referred to him after a medical exam by her health maintenance organization. Shukri took a sample of the substance, and was surprised: "These are not the widely-used silicone implants known to modern medicine. Yellow material with the texture of banana puree came out. The material had been injected directly into the tissue."

It took three surgeries to drain the mysterious substance entirely. "These cases ended well. Infections in and of themselves can cause deterioration of the medical condition, and an extreme case might have required a mastectomy. Both women are in better condition and continue to receive medical treatment," Shukri said. One is still undergoing antibiotic treatment for the infection.

As a result of these two unusual cases, Sieff Hospital yesterday called on all women who underwent similar breast enhancement treatments in Russia in the 1980s and 1990s to be examined immediately: "Apparently the material was once widely used in Russia and Ukraine. It was presented as natural and called 'Bio-Gel.' It is better to remove the material before similar infections and painful conditions develop," Shukri said.

The substance removed from the women was sent for laboratory analysis, but is still unidentified. "It is apparently a laboratory compound. In any case, it should not be inside the body," said Seiff director Dr. Oscar Embon yesterday.

The Health Ministry stated yesterday, "The matter is under review and the nature of the substance remains unclear. The ministry asks all the hospitals to report similar cases in order to help form policy."

"Bio-Gel is a commercial product with no scientific significance," deputy chief of plastic surgery at Tel Hashomer Dr. Eyal Winkler told Haaretz yesterday. In the past, the Soviet medical establishment made various attempts to overcome a shortage of silicone implants, Winkler explained. "Due to the high price of the implants, there were various efforts to develop alternative methods, one of which was the injection of fats from cadavers into women's breasts. Nonetheless, this was on the margins of the margins, and the number of cases is extremely limited."

Winkler recommended that women who underwent such surgeries, and are concerned or feel unwell, be examined by an expert. "If they feel well, there is no reason to panic." Winkler said he has encountered just five cases of cadaver-fat injections causing infection and requiring surgical intervention in the past decade.

Winkler yesterday sought to calm the public. "Treatments conducted in Israel are completely safe and meet the strict U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards. Of course, it's always important to beware of charlatans."

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