France took a costly and unprecedented leap Friday in offering to pay for 30,000 women to have their breast implants removed because of mounting fears the products could rupture and leak cheap, industrial-grade silicone into the body.
Tens of thousands of other women elsewhere in Europe and in South America have the same French-made implants, but authorities there have so far refused to follow suit. The silicone-gel implants in question are not sold in the U.S.
Over the past week, the safety fears have created a public furor over something usually kept private, even in France. Women, some whose own families didn’t know they had their breasts enlarged, marched on Paris to demand more attention to worries about what might be happening inside them. Images of leaky, blubbery implants and women having mammograms have been splashed on French TV.
More than 1,000 ruptures pushed Health Minister Xavier Bertrand to recommend that the estimated 30,000 women in France with the implants get them removed at the state’s expense.
Bertrand insisted the removals would be “preventive” and not urgent, and French health authorities said they had found nothing to link the implants to nine cases of cancer in women. The death last month of a woman who had the implants and developed a rare cancer — anaplastic large-cell lymphoma — had catalyzed worries.
The implants, made by the now-defunct French company Poly Implant Prothese, were pulled from the market last year in countries around Europe and South America where they had been sold. The company’s website said it exported to more than 60 countries and was one of the world’s leading implant makers.
International police agency Interpol put PIP’s former director, Jean-Claude Mas, on its most-wanted list, based on a warrant from Costa Rica for crimes involving “life and health.” Interpol’s website carries a photo of the 72-year-old Mas but no details about his alleged crimes or link to Costa Rica. Mas’ lawyer could not be reached for comment Friday.
France’s health safety agency says the PIP implants appear to be more rupture-prone than other types. Also, investigators say PIP used industrial silicone instead of the medical variety to save money. However, the medical risks posed by industrial silicone are unclear.
The financial burden of the French government’s decision falls on the state health care system, which estimated the removals could cost $78 million at a time when the country is teetering on the brink of another recession and struggling with debt.
In recommending removal, the government noted the risks associated with major surgery and general anesthesia.
Because of those risks, many women may decide against removal. The government said those women should be examined every six months.
After the French decision, Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency announced that it doesn’t see enough proof of cancer or an excessive risk of rupture to recommend women in Britain have the implants removed.