Docs in the Dock face Death

“Bulgaria’s president, the chairman of the National Assembly and the country’s prime minister sent an open letter to the heads of state and parliamentary heads of all EU member states in connection with the Libya HIV trial,” reports the Bulgarian press.

The plea follows news that a Libyan court has condemned a Palestinian doctor and five Bulgarian nurses to death after accusing them of spreading HIV/AIDS among hundreds of children in hospital.

Nevertheless, according to The Economist:

No fewer than three reports by distinguished foreign AIDS specialists have cast doubt on whether the nursing staff should be blamed. French, Swiss and Italian experts noted that the AIDS outbreak started at least a year before the accused nurses arrived in Libya and continued after their arrest. More than half the blood samples taken from HIV-infected children showed they had also been infected with other diseases.

The rational explanation is that unsafe re-use of unsterilised needles, which apparently was routine in such clinics. Nevertheless, the Libyan courts rejected this evidence in preference to the ‘big consipracy’ theory: that unnamed multinational corporations had paid the doctors and nurses to test AIDS cures on Libyan babies.

Understandably – but of course that doesn’t mean rationally or sensibly – parents of the children have welcomed the death sentence handed down by the Libyan court.

“Justice has been done. We are happy. They should be executed quickly,” said one parent. There was singing and dancing outside the court.

International aid organisations like Unicef have made combatting HIV/AIDS in Libya a top priority. A chief concern now must be the impact this case could have on fighting AIDS in Africa. Libya has a very low infection rate – less than 1% according to recent statistics. But, the scapegoating and execution of these medics could potentially deter other doctors and aid workers from going to Libya – and perhaps other countries in the region – to help the fight against AIDS.

A catastrophe in the making. Libya has hinted that “blood money” might secure the release of the medical personnel. In the long run, the cost to the region might prove much more expensive.


International experts in DNA forensics say that a paper published online by Nature this week provides a firm alibi for the six medical workers facing the death penalty in Libya. The workers have been charged with deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV in 1998.

In the study, an international team led by researchers from Oxford and Rome used the genetic sequences of the viruses isolated from the patients to reconstruct the exact phylogeny, or ‘family tree’, of the outbreak. Analysing the mutations that accumulated over time allowed the researchers to work out when different outbreaks occurred. They showed that the strain of HIV with which the children had been infected was already present and spreading locally in the mid-1990s, long before the medics arrived in Libya in 1998.

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