SA is not the cheap and nasty destination for plastic surgery as portrayed in UK newspaper The Daily Mail last week, says the local plastic surgeons’ association.

South African surgeons are more experienced than their British counterparts and are trained on the British system, said Dr Tom Ford, president of the Association of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons of Southern Africa. The article could damage a thriving industry in SA, as it challenged SA’s global reputation as a "good and a safe" destination, said Ford.

There is no information available on the number of procedures performed annually by the 100-odd plastic surgeons in the country, but SA has become a popular plastic surgery destination, particularly after it started offering "surgical safaris", where plastic surgery procedures are combined with holidays.

The Daily Mail article warned that thousands of women were "seriously endangering their health" by going on plastic surgery holidays to SA and eastern Europe, where procedures are far cheaper than in the UK.

It said patients "rarely know anything about their cosmetic surgeon’s qualifications or standards of care until it is too late to back out".

Ford said plastic surgery was substantially cheaper in SA, due to the exchange rate.

He also said SA offered surgeons who were more experienced than their UK counterparts. South African surgeons were respected abroad.

The Daily Mail slammed "surgical safaris", which have become a thriving industry in SA; "and some travel agents offer package deals of a holiday with a nose job, for example, thrown in", it says.

"The article was totally unjust and it is a misrepresentation of what SA offers," says Ingrid Lomas, CEO of Surgical Attractions, which offers surgery and holiday packages.

It quoted a London surgeon who said more than 1000 British patients came to SA a year for cosmetic surgery . If anything, said Lomas, these figures were testament to SA’s good reputation in plastic surgery.

Most of SA’s plastic surgeons offer combined packages.

Among the most common procedures are breast augmentation and liposuction. Botox injections to reduce facial wrinkles are rapidly gaining popularity.

Ford said any surgical procedure, including cosmetic surgery , presented potential complications. These could occur after a patient left SA. But he said only about 1% of all plastic surgery operations had complications. "And most of these are very minor."

Global demand for plastic surgery is increasing and if South African surgeons’ reputation remains intact, it could be a continued source of foreign currency earnings for the country.

The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery said close to 7-million surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures were performed in the US in 2002. There was a 228% rise in the number of procedures in the five years to 2002.

The Daily Mail said demand for cosmetic surgery was booming in the UK, especially among the image conscious 25-35 age group. It said about 75000 British people had plastic surgery annually, about 90% of them women.