Photo By: Yousef Al-ajely / AP
Relatives of children infected by the virus
that causes AIDS celebrate after the death
sentence was given to five [Bulgarian] health
workers and a [Palestinean] doctor in May.
Sunday, December 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Focus on nurses upsets families of HIV victims
By Craig S. Smith
The New York Times
BENGHAZI, Libya — After six years, the tears still come easily among the families of 428 children infected with HIV while under the care of Bulgarian nurses at a hospital here.
But their sorrow is mixed with frustration as attention focuses on the fate of the nurses, who have been sentenced to death, and not of the children, who are dying one by one, 46 so far. The nurses were sentenced in May and an international campaign is under way to win their freedom.
"The West is only concerned about the nurses," said Omar al-Kelani al-Mesmari, whose son Seif el-Islam, now 7, was infected during a two-day stay in the hospital in 1998, when he was just months old.
The nurses came to Libya in February 1998 to work at Libya's understaffed hospitals. By that August, children at Benghazi's Al Fateh children's hospital began testing positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and the health authorities soon realized they had a huge problem.
They tested many of the children who had visited the hospital in the previous year and discovered that the infections came from the exact wards where the Bulgarian nurses were assigned, Libyan doctors said.
Five of the nurses and a Palestinian doctor were convicted of deliberately injecting the children with the virus. Two of the five nurses said they were tortured into confessing, and international AIDS experts testified that it was more likely that the virus was spread by reuse of contaminated needles.
The families are angry that the West has dismissed the trial as a sham without considering the evidence presented there.
"We trust in our courts," said Ramadan al-Faitore, whose 4-year-old stepsister was among the first to die. At the very least, he said, there was criminal negligence. "Even if they were just reusing syringes, they knew that that could kill."
What is most important now, the families say, is taking care of the children, a task that they feel has been overlooked amid the bid to save the nurses' lives.
The families have asked the court to order the hospital to pay 15 million dinars, or about $11.7 million, in compensation for each child infected, but the court awarded only 350,000 dinars, or about $272,600. The families have refused the award, arguing that it was not enough.
"We don't want this money to put in our pockets," said one of the fathers, Muhammad Gadir, raising his voice. "These children are going to need support for the rest of their lives."
With the discovery that the virus had spread, the Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, promised to take care of the children and their families. He sent them abroad in June 2000 for nearly a year of treatment by specialists in Europe and gave each family enough money to buy a home and a car. Most of the fathers of the infected children have been given paid leaves by their employers, and the state has spent more than $1 million a year on drugs.
But the families complain that the most important element is still missing: a fully equipped hospital staffed with specialists capable of caring for children with AIDS. A medical office has been dedicated to the children's cases, but it is short of the expensive machinery required to monitor AIDS patients, and it lacks specialized doctors.
The clinic's director, Dr. Ali Benjlil, said a specialist should examine each child at least once every three months, but "we have no specialists here."
"The children are dying, one after the other, without proper treatment," Gadir said.
Gadir said he had taken his daughter twice to Italy at his own expense because of her adverse reactions to the anti-viral drugs. "If you have money, you go; if you have no money, you die," he said.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company