A new technology will soon be used to carry out postmortem examinations in child deaths by certain medical facilities in the incoming fiscal year. Initiated by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, “virtual autopsies” will be used if needed to determine the cause of death in some children.
Also called “virtopsies,” medical imagery such as CT or MRI imaging will be used in for the process. While it is common to use them on adults, the Japan Medical Association and the Health Ministry suggested that the same be used on children to help prevent accidents or child abuse. The child death rate in Japan is higher than other developed countries, and the Health Ministry hopes to find a reason for this through the virtopsies. Yokohama pediatrician Tstsuhiro Yamanaka said, “In many child death cases there is little information on the circumstances surrounding the death. One benefit of virtopsies is that we can obtain information from the inside of the bodies.” However, he noted that collaboration among hospitals, child support centers, police and respective authorities are needed to back up the virtopsies and have a means of collecting and analyzing information.
Most relatives welcome virtopsies more than regular autopsies, as it does not involve the cutting open of a body. Dr. Seiji Yamamoto from “AI Joho Center” in Tokyo, an organization that handles virtopsies, or “AI” (autopsy imaging), said that many people require their services coming from “hospitals, police, lawyers and insurance companies, to relatives of the deceased who aren’t satisfied with a stated cause of death.” With the shortage of forensic specialists trained to do autopsies, only 2 to 3 percent of bodies that must undergo the examination get autopsied. Virtopsies aim to address that issue.
More and more facilities are opening the service and technique. In 2012, 5,519 virtopsies had been requested by the police force alone, according to the National Police Agency. But many problems remain. With the high cost of having a virtopsy, around 50,000 yen (about US$495), often paid by relatives of the deceased or the hospital, not everyone is too keen with it. The Japan Society of Autopsy believes that expenses as such these must be shouldered by the government. A lack of trained virtopsy specialists must also be addressed for the said technique to be widely used.
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