Medical Workers’ Release Brings Attention to HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Libya, New York Times Reports
The "drawn-out drama" of the six medical workers released recently from Libyan prison after being sentenced to death for allegedly intentionally infecting hundreds of children with HIV is bringing attention to the country's HIV/AIDS epidemic, the New York Times reports. According to the Times, HIV/AIDS in Libya has "never been fully acknowledged" and "continues to spread" (Rosenthal, New York Times, 7/29).
The five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor in May 2004 were sentenced to death by firing squad for allegedly infecting 426 children with HIV through contaminated blood products at Al Fateh Children's Hospital in Benghazi, Libya. They also were ordered to pay a total of $1 million to the families of the HIV-positive children. The Libyan Supreme Court in December 2005 overturned the medical workers' convictions and ordered a retrial in a lower court. A court in Tripoli, Libya, in December 2006 convicted the health workers and sentenced them to death. The medical workers then filed an appeal of the December 2006 conviction with the Libyan Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction earlier this month. The six medical workers last week were released and pardoned by Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov after arriving in the country (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 7/26).
Libya by the end of 2006 had recorded 10,450 HIV/AIDS cases to the World Health Organization, but many experts consider the number of people living with the disease in the country to be much higher, the Times reports. Gabriele Riedner -- regional adviser to WHO in Cairo, Egypt -- said, "There may be a lot [of HIV/AIDS cases] out there that's not detected or reported, as is true in many countries in the region."
According to a recent WHO report, there is "evidence of increasing HIV infections in Libya, especially among the younger age groups." The majority of HIV cases in the country occur among injection drug users, according to the Times (New York Times, 7/29).
"To Westerners, the repatriation" of the medical workers means the "end of the an unsettling ordeal," Harriet Washington -- author of "Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present" -- writes in a Times opinion piece. However, to "many Africans, the accusations" against the medical workers "seem perfectly plausible," Washington writes, adding that their release "appears to be the latest episode in a health care nightmare in which white and Western-trained doctors and nurses have harmed Africans -- and have gone unpunished."
According to Washington, to "dismiss the Libyan accusations of medical malfeasance out of hand means losing an opportunity to understand why a dangerous suspicion of medicine is so widespread in Africa." She adds that "well-publicized events" -- including the Libyan case and ones involving "Western medical miscreants who have intentionally administered deadly agents" to people in Africa "under the guise of providing health care or conducting research" -- have spread a "fear of medicine throughout" the continent. These fears have had a direct consequence in Africa -- such as a rise of polio cases in Nigeria, Chad and Burkina Faso because of beliefs that polio "vaccines are contaminated with HIV or are actually sterilization agents in disguise" -- Washington writes, adding that these "tragedies highlight the challenges facing the most idealistic medical workers" in Africa.
"We should approach Africans' suspicion with respect," Washington writes, concluding, "By continuing to dismiss their reasonable fears, we raise the risk of even more needless illness and death" on the continent (Washington, New York Times, 7/31).