For Immediate Release
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) called for the complete exoneration of the five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian medic who were pardoned today by Bulgarian president Georgi Parvanov. They were transferred to Sofia after eight years of imprisonment in Libya under a death sentence that was commuted last week. The nurses and medic were accused of "deliberately infecting" 426 children with HIV at Benghazi Children's Hospital. PHR accused Libya of contempt for human rights as it addressed the case (the charges were fabricated; the nurses were tortured into confessing; there was no due process), and disregard for scientific evidence that should have exonerated them long ago. Despite the facts of this case, the nurses' lives were secured by a US $400 million settlement with the families of the affected children.
"We are relieved that the nurses' and medic's imprisonment is over. But this is really an outrageous case, in which the lives of these nurses and medic were literally ransomed for $400 million. Human rights, civil rights, and scientific evidence were completely ignored. There is nothing to prevent the future scapegoating of foreign health workers and holding them hostage in exchange for foreign aid," said Susannah Sirkin, PHR Deputy Director. She added, "As an organization of health care professionals, we are sensitive to the suffering of the infected children and are pleased to hear that the children will continue to receive high quality medical care, but the treatment of the health workers is a disgrace that entailed serious violations of human rights and flouted scientific evidence."
"The U.S. should move very slowly in normalizing relations with the Libyan regime until Libya shows, through the exoneration of the health professionals, that it is a responsible part of the global scientific community," added Sirkin.
PHR also called on the U.S. Senate to move cautiously on the Administration's plan to fully normalize relations with Libya by sending an Ambassador to Tripoli for the first time in thirty five years. The Senate should not confirm the nominee for this position until the nurses are exonerated.
Repeated scientific studies, including a study published in the highly respected, peer-reviewed journal Nature, indicate that the children were likely infected through the re-use of infected medical instruments and supplies, a frequent conduit of HIV in hospitals that fail to follow proper infection control procedures. The evidence shows the strain of HIV with which the children were infected was spreading through the hospital before the accused nurses and doctor began working there in the late 1990s. The Libyan Supreme Court however, refused to admit for consideration scientific evidence about the transmission of the disease.
"If the Libyan Government is to have any credibility in the scientific and medical communities, it must acknowledge this concrete scientific and medical evidence and continue to develop effective infection control policies and procedures that include a universal precautions program in Libyan medical facilities and in the ongoing treatment for the infected children," said Sirkin. "If this is not addressed, it will have a chilling effect on the willingness of people to enter the health professions and serve in areas where health care needs are great. And the health care in Libya will be no safer than it was when the children were infected."
Many other countries, including China, Romania, and Kazakhstan, have also experienced accidental HIV infection due to an unsafe blood supply or reused and unsterilized medical equipment, PHR said.
Given the important scientific issues at stake, PHR called on the US government to be extremely cautious in establishing proposed scientific exchanges with Libya until the health professionals are exonerated. "Establishing scientific exchanges in an atmosphere in which science has been so clearly ignored would set a dangerous precedent," said Sirkin.
PHR appreciates the grief that this situation has caused for the families who have lost children or whose children are sick. However, the group is concerned that this tragedy could repeat itself unless Libya adheres to basic principles of science and human rights.
PHR has been advocating for the release of the nurses and medic for years. In March 2007, PHR sent a letter to Colonel Mu'ammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi that was signed by nine major professional associations, including the American Medical Association, American College of Physicians, Association of Nursers in AIDS Care, HIV Medicine Association; the American Medical Student Association; the International Human Rights Committee of the American Public Health Association; the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America; the Society of General Internal Medicine; and the World Federation of Public Health Associations.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.