- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 31, 2012

CARACAS, VENEZUELA (AP) - A line snakes out of the plastic surgeon’s office as women wait to find out if their breast implants have ruptured and how soon they can have them removed.

Thousands of women throughout Latin America are consulting their doctors, fearing health risks due to faulty silicone implants made by the now-defunct French company Poly Implant Prothese, or PIP. In some cases, the implants made with industrial-grade silicone have split open, and that possibility is prompting many women to replace them.

“It’s like a snowball,” said Dr. Ignacio Sousa, a plastic surgeon who has been receiving dozens of patients every day since the news broke in December that French authorities recommended the implants should be removed.

The scandal has hit Venezuela particularly hard. About 16,000 Venezuelans have the PIP implants, making the country the per-capita leader in Latin America. Breast enlargement surgery is common in the country, and the PIP brand was used frequently until the implants were pulled from the market in 2010.

More than 4,000 Venezuelan women have banded together to join a Facebook page dedicated to those with the implants.

When Sania Arroyo began to feel a tingling pain under her left breast, she suspected a problem with her implants. An ultrasound exam confirmed one had ruptured and silicone was leaking into her body.

The 33-year-old single mother and bank employee struggled to save about $5,000 to pay for the surgery in January, and says the new brand has made her more comfortable, but she still feels apprehensive about the safety of her replacements.

“I feel so much better now, although I still have the fear something similar could happen again,” Arroyo said, holding a plastic case containing the ruptured implant and the yellowish silicone that leaked out.

PIP’s silicone gel is transparent, but doctors say the substance often turns yellow when it comes in contact with body tissues.

Arroyo is one of 495 Venezuelans who are suing companies that sold the implants demanding payment of medical costs.

Venezuela’s government offered to remove the implants for free, but many women say they don’t plan to take up the offer because they prefer to have new implants and the government won’t pay for them.

It’s not clear exactly how many women in Latin America have PIP implants. But the number is in the tens of thousands. French authorities say an estimated 300,000 women have the implants worldwide, though they were not sold in the United States.

The Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgeons says about 20,000 women in that country have PIP implants or other defective implants sold by the Dutch company Rofil Medical Nederland BV. In Colombia, the country’s association of plastic surgeons says about 14,000 pairs of PIP implants were sold.

Less-populous Venezuela has more cases than other countries on a per-capita basis. That’s no surprise to most people in the country, where beauty pageants are a source of national pride and cosmetic surgery is widely accepted.

An estimated 35,000 to 40,000 women undergo breast enlargement surgeries in Venezuela each year, and doctors say the numbers have been rising.

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