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Thailand Attracts Patients for Sex Changes
Sitting cross-legged on his hospital bed at Yanhee Hospital in Bangkok, South African Neil Van Der Merwe unwraps a layer of bandages to reveal a six-inch tube inserted into the inner part of his forearm.
The contraption is being used to grow a penis, the final step in Van Der Merwe's transformation from woman to man.
"I wanted to do this a long time ago," says the 35-year-old, who sports a thin goatee and has lived as a man for five years.
Van Der Merwe is one of a growing number of foreigners heading to Thailand for sex changes and other surgery, enticed by the kingdom's reputation for low-cost but high-quality medical treatment. While he insists he is not worried, doctors warn that as more people travel abroad for medical care, they must be aware of possible dangers.
"One disadvantage of having surgery abroad is follow-up," says Somsak Lolekha, president of Thailand's medical council.
He says that while the surgery may initially look good, complications can arise when the patient returns home, and with the operating hospital hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles away, patients could be at risk.
Somsak urges doctors to tell patients about both the advantages and disadvantages of heading abroad for treatment.
"A lot of times they say the advantages but don't mention the side effects and adverse reactions that might occur after surgery," he tells AFP.
But these concerns have not stopped millions of foreigners flocking to Thailand for medical procedures, making the kingdom a center for medical tourism.
Last year, 1.28 million international patients visited Thailand and the number is expected to increase by 10% in 2006, according to Thailand tourism agency figures.
Thailand has 33 internationally-accredited hospitals, including Yanhee Hospital, the most famous plastic surgery clinic for sex change operations.
Patients like Van Der Merwe make up just a small percentage of the people coming to Bangkok for plastic surgery, most of whom are hankering after a new nose, larger breasts or less cellulite.
And while Bangkok has long been known as a center for male-to-female operations, Yanhee has seen a sharp rise in the number of women wanting to become men.
So far this year, they have done 75 female-to-male operations compared with 47 male-to-female.
"The service is remarkable," says Van Der Merwe, a designer for a newspaper who says he wants to get married and have children. "You get spoiled here."
But in a few days, armed with a kit of supplies, Van Der Merwe will have to go back to South Africa and take care of himself, before returning in six months for his final surgery.
The plastic device currently in his arm is used to stretch the surface so new skin will grow. After six months, the skin will be removed and shaped into a penis.
Of Yanhee's cosmetic surgery patients, 30% are international, with most coming from other parts of Asia, followed by Western Europeans, Americans and Middle Easterners.
The hospital has translators for 10 different languages to help the more than 2,000 international patients who have come to Yanhee for plastic surgery so far this year.
"The result is good and it is a very cheap price when compared to home," says Greechart Pornsinsirirak, head of plastic surgery at Yanhee, as he finishes up a nose implant on an Asian woman and walks across the hall to remove the Adam's apple of a man from New Zealand.
The hospital teams up with travel agencies in the United States and Europe that help patients with flights, accommodation and transfers in addition to the surgical procedure.
Breast enlargements at Yanhee cost $2,200. Phalloplasty — the procedure that constructs a penis from a skin graft, takes about four to eight hours, and requires a two-week stay at the clinic — costs $5,500.
Doctors say similar procedures in the United States cost five to 10 times as much.
"For our patients, nearly 100% say the service is very good when they compare it with their country," boasts Greechart, as nurses decked out in tight uniforms, short skirts and high heels walk past.
As well as the hospital's quirks — which include staff on rollerblades zipping through the hospital delivering records — patients get the amenities of a luxury hotel, including top quality cuisine.
"After all the food, I need liposuction," Van Der Merwe says, only half-joking.
With an expected 20% rise in revenues and patients per year, Yanhee is expanding with a new 15-storey building. This expansion will mean more room for patients like Norwegian Helge Jan, 58, who is recovering from a facelift.
Although his bandaged face is swollen and bruised, Jan manages a smile when talking about his reasons for coming to Thailand for surgery.
"It is very expensive in Norway and I don't think they are as good in Norway as they are in Thailand," he says. "The treatment here is 10 times better than in Norway. This is like a seven-star hotel."( Agence France-Presse)