San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Authorities have eyes peeled over case of stolen corneas

The Prosecutor’s Office confirmed it has been investigating the theft of at least 20 corneas donated for transplant from the eye bank of the Costa Rican Social Security System, known as the Caja, the daily La Nación reported on Wednesday.

According to an audit of the eye bank presented to investigators, an ex-employee, who the newspaper did not identify, allegedly took at least 20 corneas from the facility to a private clinic, supposedly for research between 2012 and 2013. The former employee failed to provide any evidence of the research or the required bioethics approval when auditors approached him.

The Prosecutor’s Office said they have yet to identify a specific defendant in the case.

The cornea is a clear dome-like layer that covers the outermost part of the eye that helps people focus on what they see. Reportedly, corneas are worth roughly $2,000, and transplant procedures could cost an average of $5,000.

María Eugenia Villalta, medical director of the Caja, admitted that there was a lack of oversight at the eye bank, but told the newspaper she did not consider the case under investigation an example of organ trafficking.

The same could not be said for the case of Dr. Francisco Mora, the former head of nephrology at the public Calderón Guardia Hospital, who allegedly headed an international kidney trafficking operation between 2009 and his arrest in June 2013. In October 2013, police arrested three other doctors and a pizzeria owner in connection with the alleged organ trafficking ring.

In the wake of the kidney scandal, the Legislative Assembly rushed to take up a long-languishing 2011 bill to reform the country’s organ donation law. In March 2013, lawmakers passed the reform, which included a national registry of donors and recipients.

The Caja provided 187 cornea transplants in 2013, and 560 people are on a cornea transplant waiting list, according to figures reported to La Nación.

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