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Congress Focuses On Cure For Disfiguring Birthmark

20 February 2004
Media release

Congress Focuses On Cure For Disfiguring Birthmarks

More than 200 world leaders into the study and treatment of disfiguring - and at times life threatening - birthmarks will arrive in Wellington on February 22 for the world’s largest ever congress on the subject.

It is the first time in the 38-year history of the International Society for the Study of Vascular Anomalies (birthmarks) that its biennial congress has taken place outside the Northern Hemisphere, says Dr Swee Tan, founder trustee of the Reconstructive Plastic Surgery Research Foundation which funds research into vascular anomalies in New Zealand, and president of the congress.

“We won our bid against fierce competition for the honour, including Harvard,” says Dr Tan. “The coup was achieved largely through the pioneering work being undertaken here by the Centre for the Study and Treatment of Vascular Birthmarks within the Wellington Regional Plastic, Maxillofacial and Burns Unit at Hutt Hospital.”

Vascular anomalies – more commonly known as birthmarks - affect about 12 percent of the Caucasian population, says Dr Tan who is one of the keynote speakers at the congress, “Concept – Classification – Cure”.

“They can be hideously disfiguring, causing emotional trauma and distress to the sufferer and the people close to them. Even worse, they can be life threatening, growing to press on organs. This can result in death if not treated.”

He says they can threaten vision, can cause cardiac failure, can cause teeth to fall out. They are not always visible, and can be hidden under the skin, causing havoc undetected.

Birthmarks as a condition are poorly treated and poorly understood.

“The more than 100 different kinds of vascular anomalies are often lumped together,” says Dr Tan.

He and his colleagues say research is essential in this field where it is still not known what causes these birthmarks. However, with the support of funding from the Reconstructive Plastic Surgery Research Foundation, exciting progress is being made in this field in Wellington which could not only unlock the mystery about the cause and treatment of birthmarks which has major implications in other fields of medicine such as cancer.

Dr Tan believes there will be a cure found in his lifetime and is dedicating himself to that goal.

The recognition of the progress New Zealand is making in this field through the hosting of the congress is especially gratifying from a historical perspective, Dr Tan says. The work done by acclaimed New Zealand plastic surgeons Sir Harold Gillies (considered by many to be the father of plastic surgery) and Sir Archibald McIndoe had meant that at one time New Zealand was seen to be the world leader in the field, but until recently, had fallen behind.

Thanks largely to the Foundation’s support, Dr Tan and his team have been able to bring New Zealand back to the forefront of this important branch of medicine.

More than 200 delegates – world experts in their field – will attend the congress from more than 30 countries. It will be the biggest ever meeting of its kind with 108 presentations selected from 182 submitted abstracts which had to be culled by an international scientific panel.

An innovation for the congress will be the re-introduction of an interventional radiology workshop in which several patients with a variety of vascular malformations will be treated at Wakefield Radiology with a live demonstration video-linked to the congress.

The Chairman of the Reconstructive Plastic Surgery Research Foundation, Dr Colin Calcinai, says the foundation is delighted Wellington will play host to such distinguished and accomplished physicians.

“These people are contributing to understanding in a field which could have enormous implications in the wider field of medicine,” Dr Calcinai says. “It is a great privilege for us all.”


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