Libyan HIV Infections Mystery May Soon Be SolvedViews on BG | April 24, 2011, Sunday // 16:09| views
One of the darkest secrets of Moamer Gaddafi's Libya may soon be revealed.
By Anne-Beatrice Clasmann
In 1998, more than 400 children were infected with HIV, the virus causing AIDS, at a paediatric hospital in Benghazi. To this day it is not known who was responsible.
But now that the embattled regime has lost control of the eastern city, witnesses can finally speak out without fear of reprisal. The last intelligence agent at the hospital minding that everyone kept mum disappeared on the first day of the uprising in Benghazi, according to an administrator.
After the mass infections came to light, a Palestinian doctor and five Bulgarian nurses who worked at the hospital were convicted in a show trial of having deliberately injected the children with HIV- tainted blood.
Their motive was either hatred of the Libyan people, the prosecutors alleged, or they were tools of sinister foreign powers. In the view of Westerners who followed the trial, the defendants were scapegoats of a rogue regime.
The small hospital, set behind trees and a sand-coloured wall, is operating normally again today. For two years after the scandal, it hardly had any patients.
'Emergencies and the poorest of the poor were the only ones who came because people were afraid of getting infected,' said Amel al- Saidi, who has worked in the hospital laboratory for 15 years.
Al-Saidi said she was sure that the children had been infected intentionally but could not imagine who would hatch such a diabolical scheme.
'This crime must have been planned at high levels,' she asserted, though, tugging at her white smock. She ruled out a theory by foreign physicians who said the HIV outbreak had likely been caused by deficient hygiene at the hospital.
'If a dozen children had been infected, this could possibly have been the case. But more than 400? It's impossible,' she said, and noted that the infected children had not been given transfusions of contaminated blood.
'They were children we treated for gastrointestinal illnesses and who received infusions,' she said.
'We must find out what really happened by all means. It's very important for the children's parents and for us doctors, too,' remarked Ali al-Tuwaiti, who was working at the hospital at the time of the outbreak. He said he had not spoken about it for years.
The memories brought tears to the eyes of the slender man with the carefully cropped beard. His lower lip quivered. The children's suffering, and their parents' despair, torments him still. Some of the children have died. Others are living, largely isolated from the outside world, at a centre built especially for them.
'I know a girl there with HIV,' said one of the hospital's nurses. 'She's 17 years old now and refuses to take her medicine because she'd rather die than live in this society, where she sees no future for herself. Some of the families have broken up - parents couldn't cope with the suffering and the stigma that the disease carries.'
Al-Tuwaiti's tears flowed partly out of self-pity. Families of the infected children at first blamed him and the other doctors at the hospital. Mothers beat him with their fists.
He said he had felt like a leper. As he talked, he became embarrassed at crying in front of strangers. He took off his eyeglasses and dried his eyes with a paper towel.
The accused foreign medical workers were imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death. In July 2007, after several trials and pressure from various European Union countries, they were finally extradited to Bulgaria. There the six were pardoned and freed, and the doctor was granted Bulgarian citizenship.
Part of the deal securing their extradition was a promise by France to help complete a large clinic situated directly opposite the paediatric hospital.
Among the current patients in the new clinic, which opened in 2009 and is popularly known as 1,200 Beds, are people wounded by Gaddafi's troops in Ajdabiya and Misurata. Al-Tuwaiti now works in the paediatric ward on the clinic's fifth floor.
'The children must have been infected during infusions,' he said, 'but not with reused syringes as some people claim here in Benghazi, because we almost exclusively use plastic cannulas and they can't be used more than once.' Al-Tuwaiti produced a plastic cannula to show what he meant.
He noted that although the accused foreign nurses had been working in various wings of the hospital, the infections had broken out in only one of the hospital's three departments. This, too, he said, leads him to believe that the HIV outbreak was no accident. But who was capable of such a cruel act, and with what motive?
'It must have been someone who wanted to create chaos or felt deep hatred toward the inhabitants of this city,' Al-Tuwaiti said as he played nervously with his eyeglasses.
Another doctor who was working at the hospital when the outbreak occurred was less guarded. Muammar Gaddafi,' he said. 'He must have done it to punish this city.' The doctor offered no evidence for his allegation. And he did not want his name to be published.
Fear of the regime's revenge lives on.
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