An international group of 44 researchers, including an Indian American scientist, have appealed to Libya for the release of six healthcare workers charged with intentionally infecting about 400 children with HIV.
Seeking the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who have been incarcerated in a Libyan prison for nearly eight years, the researchers explained that scientific evidence shows the virus was present in the hospital before the accused workers arrived.
The most reasonable explanation for the outbreak is poor infection control practices, including the lack of sterile, disposable injecting equipment, wrote Sunil K. Ahuja and co-authors in a letter to Science, published online Tuesday. Ahuja is from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.
Robert Gallo and C. David Pauza of the Institute of Human Virology, University of Maryland, Baltimore and their colleagues have requested that their governments reach out to the Libyan people and their political leadership to find a way to release the workers.
They also want them to provide the means to look after the HIV-infected children, and help with all efforts to detect, treat and prevent HIV infections within Libya, according to American Association for the Advancement of Science.
What has happened to the accused sends a chilling message to all healthcare workers who choose to work in difficult circumstances to deliver life-saving care to HIV-1-infected or at-risk people worldwide, the authors wrote.
The Libyan court has excluded expert testimony from independent scientists, while relying instead on confessions extracted under torture and making threats of execution for any non-cooperation by the accused, they alleged.
As Libya is now seeking closer ties with the Western world, the scientists urged their governments to reach out to the Libyan people and their political leadership to find a way out.
"If Libya is truly willing to enter into meaningful dialogues with Western nations, it should take the opportunity to benefit from the knowledge Western scientists have gained about HIV-1 and AIDS over the past 25 years and not instead create yet more victims of the AIDS epidemic - in this case, the five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor," they said.
In 2000-01, reports began to surface of an HIV-1 outbreak in approximately 400 children who were hospitalised or treated as outpatients in the Al-Fateh Hospital Benghazi, Libya.
The Libyan government accused six medical workers of intentionally infecting these children with HIV-1 with the Libyan head of state Moammar Gaddafi alleging that these children had been deliberately infected as part of a vast international conspiracy to destabilise his country.
The six healthcare workers were imprisoned, tortured with electric shocks to extract "confessions", tried in a Libyan court, convicted, and sentenced to death by firing squad.
The resulting publicity caused the Benghazi paediatric HIV-1 outbreak to become the focus of international scientific efforts to understand how it occurred.