Published: Thu, October 24, 2013
(Reuters) - For many women, the dream of having a perfect body in Venezuela has become an obsession which can lead to severe health problems and even death.
Such is the case of Evelyn de Aguiar, a thirty-year-old-woman who decided to undergo a plastic surgery procedure seven years ago involving the injection of silicone gel into her buttocks.
The silicone product is also known as a synthetic polymer or a biopolymer, and is injected beneath the patients' skin and spreads throughout the tissue intending to produce flattering curves.
Little did de Aguiar know, she was having a product derived from petroleum, used as oil for planes and cars, injected into her body.
De Aguiar's wish to improve the shape and cosmetic appearance of her buttocks at 23 years-of-age was so great she failed to investigate the origin of the material used at an unlicensed business.
Cosmetic surgeries using silicone injections are illegal in Venezuela, but the Association of Cosmetic Surgeons estimates that 2,000 women every month are receiving silicone injections, either at home or illegally at unlicensed businesses. There is little data and published research on men and silicone injections.
Plastic surgeon, Dr. Daniel Slobodianik, said other countries in Latin America have larger numbers of patients receiving silicone injections. The practice is punishable in Venezuela with a two-year prison sentence.
"Venezuela is not the country which has the highest number of patients with biopolymers. Apparently Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico lead Venezuela with more patient injections but in those countries there is no type of legislation over this substance. Venezuela is the only country in the region with laws against biopolymers because both distribution and sale are banned, as well as its administration, it's punishable," he said.
Still, patients seeking a silicone-based buttock injection can find illegal businesses to perform the procedure with an average cost of $8, according to local media reports.
Slobodianik said the silicone injections are undeniably dangerous. The injections take a couple minutes but they can never fully be taken out with the patient eventually becoming irreversibly ill.
"It's not a question of where the product is from and who injects it - because he/she could be a hairdresser or doctor - or where it was injected. This is about a synthetic material, plastic, it's a liquid silicon which cannot be injected into the tissues. It's as easy as that," he said.
Two years ago, de Aguiar started feeling intense pain in her left leg as well as reddening of the skin and a burning sensation in her lower back.
Tests confirmed the presence of granuloma, the formation of a mass of immune cells, inflammatory cells and scar tissue that forms when the immune system attempts to wall off substances that it perceives as foreign but is unable to eliminate.
She has had to undergo surgery to remove the mass formations. She said the experience changed her view on plastic surgery overall, but particularly silicone injections.
"After the surgery I will now reject any aesthetic (cosmetic) procedures. After this I won't have anything else done," she said.
In the last three decades, Venezuela has won more beauty titles than any other country. Entering beauty competitions has become a national pastime and even an obsession. The sale of beauty products is also very high among Venezuelan women.
"The aesthetic (cosmetic) part of it blinds us and we don't see there are more important things," said Aguiar.
De Aguiar's doctor was arrested in 2010 accused of injecting silicone into the buttocks of a woman who died from respiratory failure during the procedure.
According to Jesus Pereira, the president of the Venezuelan Plastic Surgeons Association, an estimated 25 to 30 percent of Venezuelan women aged 16 to 55 have undergone a liquid silicone buttock injection. Local media reported the death of 17 women in the past year from botched procedures.
"I would say that between 25 to 30 percent of our female population between the ages of 16 to 55 years of age have been injected this material (biopolymers) but not recently but a long time ago."
NGO's have said the government needs to start strong campaigns to warn young women about the dangers of illegal cosmetic surgeries. Although Venezuela's laws impose strict sanctions over illegal practices, state regulation is minimal, according to NGOs.