Hero sur­geon who makes acid at­tack vic­tims smile again

Naguib El-Mut­tardi calls for ac­tion to re­strict sale of cor­ro­sive sub­stances


Naguib El-Mut­tardi, who fre­quently treats pa­tients maimed in the as­saults, said gang vi­o­lence is be­hind the in­crease and called on the Home Of­fice to crack­down on the sale and pos­ses­sion of cor­ro­sive sub­stances.

The avail­abil­ity of sul­fu­ric acid, he said, was par­tic­u­larly wor­ry­ing, as crim­i­nal gangs of­ten use the in­dus­trial chem­i­cal in at­tacks.

“It's easy to get,” El-Mut­tardi told Arab News. “It should be con­sid­ered a weapon and not be so easy to get.”

Part of a team at St. An­drew's Cen­tre for Plas­tic surgery and Burns at Broom­field Hos­pi­tal, one of the world's lead­ing burns units, El-Mut­tardi and his col­leagues have been faced with a marked in­crease in the num­ber of acid at­tack pa­tients, with most cases tak­ing place in East Lon­don.

“They are usu­ally young peo­ple,” he said. “Most of them are in gangs.”

Ac­cord­ing to statis­tics re­leased by Lon­don's Metropoli­tan Po­lice Ser­vice, there were more than 400 acid at­tacks in the city last year — a 65 per­cent in­crease from two years ago when just 260 sim­i­lar as­saults were reg­is­tered.

While else­where in the world, acid at­tacks are as­so­ci­ated closely with so called “honor crimes” and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, in the UK cor­ro­sive sub­stances — of­ten sprayed in the faces of vic­tims — have been adopted as a new weapon of choice by young crim­i­nals for use in rob­beries and gang vi­o­lence, ac­cord­ing to El-Mut­tardi and other ex­perts on the is­sue.

Those in­volved in the crimes, he said, “are try­ing to do harm without killing.” In­stead, the at­tacks leave vic­tims with hor­rific and of­ten prom­i­nent dis­fig­u­ra­tion.

Dr Jo­hann Grundlingh, a con­sul­tant in emer­gency medicine and in­ten­sive care, who has treated acid at­tack vic­tims, said the pur­pose of the at­tacks is to “brand peo­ple.”

“As an at­tack it­self, you're not try­ing to kill the other per­son— it's a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to ruin some­one's life.”

El-Mut­tardi was part of the team which treated Naomi Oni, who was left with ex­ten­sive burns to her face af­ter be­ing doused with acid in 2012 when she was just 20.

Her case fea­tured in a re­cent BBC doc­u­men­tary on the is­sue.

Help­ing vic­tims, who are of­ten in the prime of their lives is a unique chal­lenge, El-Mut­tardi said. “They are look­ing for a fu­ture, and they will be left with a per­ma­nent mark on their face.”

Doc­tors pre­vent vic­tims from see­ing their dis­fig­ured faces un­til weeks af­ter the ini­tial at­tack, El-Mut­tardi said, ex­plain­ing that the shock is of­ten too much to han­dle.

Vic­tims such as Oni, El-Mut­tardi said, re­quire years of treat­ment, with mul­ti­ple surg­eries and long-stand­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal sup­port. Even af­ter sev­eral cour­ses of skin grafts and laser treat­ments usu­ally re­quir­ing weeks in hos­pi­tal, El-Mut­tardi said pa­tients are dis­charged and face a new life marked by the stigma of se­vere fa­cial scars, he said.

While the re­sources re­quired to treat a sin­gle case vary dra­mat­i­cally de­pend­ing on the sever­ity of the burn, El-Mut­tardi ac­knowl­edged that treat­ment is of­ten “very ex­pen­sive.”

The sur­geon, who is orig­i­nally from Libya but has been prac­tic­ing medicine in the UK for more than two decades, said that while he has treated acid at­tack cases for the past 10 years, his team has seen the num­bers ris­ing. “We no­ticed that the num­ber is in­creas­ing ev­ery year,” he said.

Both El-Mut­tardi and Grundlingh said they have al­ready treated acid at­tack vic­tims since New Year. Both ex­pressed con­cerns that the at­tacks will con­tinue to in­crease un­less the gov­ern­ment adopts re­stric­tions on the sale of the most dan­ger­ous acids and im­ple­ments harsher mea­sures against those found car­ry­ing cor­ro­sive sub­stances in pub­lic.

The sale and cir­cu­la­tion of acid, El-Mut­tardi said, “must be con­trolled.”

Grundlingh agreed. “The leg­is­la­tion needs to be re­viewed to look at how acid or cor­ro­sive sub­stances are supplied to the pub­lic,” he said.

Vic­to­ria Atkins, the Min­is­ter for Crime, Safe­guard­ing and Vul­ner­a­bil­ity, said: “There is no place in so­ci­ety for sickening at­tacks on peo­ple in­volv­ing acids or other cor­ro­sive sub­stances that can re­sult in huge dis­tress and life chang­ing in­juries.”

The Home Of­fice is re­view­ing new leg­is­la­tion that would reg­u­late acid sim­i­larly to knives.

LON­DON: A lead­ing re­con­struc­tive sur­geon has called on the UK gov­ern­ment to ramp-up ac­tion to pre­vent acid at­tacks as hos­pi­tals face a spike in the num­ber of vic­tims of the “sickening” crime.

Sur­geon Naguib El-Mut­tardi treated Naomi Oni af­ter she was doused with acid in 2012. (Ali Noori, BBC Three)

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