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 Wednesday, 22 January, 2003, 01:22 GMT
Barcodes 'stop baby mix-ups'
BBC graphic
Babies can be identified through barcodes
Barcodes containing newborn babies' fingerprints are being used to prevent mix-ups over identification.

The system has been introduced in the maternity unit of La Zarzuela Hospital in Madrid, Spain.

As soon as babies are born their fingerprints, and those of their mothers, are stored in electronic barcodes which mother and baby wear on their wrists.

With this system there is a much-reduced risk of any mistake being made

Maria Burgoa, La Zarzuela
The barcodes also contain other information, including the mother's details and information about the doctors present at the birth. In effect, they act as an ID card for the child.

If there is any doubt about a baby's identity, the barcodes can be scanned by a machine which matches the child with its mother.

La Zarzuela is run by Sanitas, Bupa's Spanish business.

Bupa does not operate maternity services In the UK. But some private hospitals do take paper prints of babies' feet.

Parental worries

Maria Burgoa, vice managing director at La Zarzuela told Bupa Today magazine: "Thankfully, mix-ups over babies in maternity units do not happen very often in Spain but, or course, they do occur now and again.

"Parents naturally worry about the security and safety of their baby when they are out of their sight in the hospital.

"With this system there is a much-reduced risk of any mistake being made."

I suspect the biggest safeguard against snatching is staff being vigilant

Dr Maggie Blott, King's College Hospital
But Dr Maggie Blot, a leading obstetrician and gynaecologist at King's College Hospital, London, said the most crucial factor in safeguarding babies was staff vigilance.

She told BBC News Online: "In the private sector, they take footprints of babies and, on the same piece of paper, they record the mother's fingerprints."

Dr Blott said the Spanish initiative was "added security" and a "belt and braces" approach.

"I think it would take quite a lot of work, and quite a lot of money."

"NHS maternity units have quite a lot of precautions against babies being snatched.

"Most have locked wards, where you need a security code to enter, for example."

She added: "I suspect the biggest safeguard against snatching is staff being vigilant."

Melanie Every, a spokeswoman for the Royal College of Midwives, said: "The barcode system sounds like quite a good idea.

"With all these security initiatives, we don't really know how good it's going to be until it's been in use for a while."

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