PRAGUE, July 21, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The discovery that someone has the HIV virus is traumatic. Learning that the virus was contracted from blood transfusions at a hospital, as has happened across the world, makes it even harder to deal with. And when the victims of infection are small babies, it is an even greater tragedy.
Scandal Surrounds Hospitals
For the parents of 14 children in the Shymkent area of South Kazakhstan Province this is their new reality. Their children, some as young as two months old, now have the dreaded virus that has killed so many people. And they got the virus at a place where the parents hoped they were taking their children to get healthy.
Between 1996 and 2006, 28 HIV-positive people were detected among blood donors. One of these people had actually donated blood 12 times.
There were reports on July 19 that the chief doctors at the Shymkent Regional Children Hospital and Shymkent city hospitals number one and two were fired. The regional prosecutor has opened an investigation into how the 14 children were infected with HIV at the hospitals.
On July 11, when the first two children were diagnosed as possibly having HIV, health officials denied it could be the hospitals' fault. Kelisbai Zhumagulov, the chief of South Kazakhstan's anti-AIDS center, made comments he might now regret. Zhumagulov claimed the children were from poor homes and their parents were drug addicts and prostitutes, and therefore it was the parents who were likely the source of the infection.
"Mainly people of 20 to 35 years of age, some maybe 45, are the HIV patients in the region," he said. "All of them are mainly unemployed drug addicts and young people providing sexual favors on the street."
Without specifying individual parents by name, Zhumagulov said the social situation in the area was the root of the problem.
"One of [the children] was rejected by his parents and is now in a foster home," he said. "The other is in his grandmother's care."
HIV Infection A Growing Problem
The number of HIV patients in the South Kazakhstan Province is still small. But the problem is growing. There are 79 new cases registered so far this year compared to 44 for all of last year. That ranks South Kazakhstan fourth among Kazakhstan's provinces on the list of registered HIV patients.
A sign that there were concerns came when Kazakhstan's Health Protection Ministry sent a commission to Shymkent to look into how the children got HIV. On July 14, the Health Protection Ministry released a statement that 14 children, not just the two, were infected with HIV.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service attempted to contact local health officials who just days before were anxious to speak with reporters. At the regional Health Protection Department, one secretary answered the phone this way.
"There is nobody here," she said. "One [official] is in the Otrar region, another is with the commission [from the Health Protection Ministry]. Now they are visiting the [hospitals]."
It sounds reasonable but when RFE/RL's Kazakh Service attempted to contact the regional AIDS prevention center the secretary there had nearly the same comment.
"We are not giving out any information," the secretary said. "There are no directors here right now. They left to look into this [reported problem], so for now we can't tell you anything."
The Health Protection Ministry's July 14 press release said only two of the children were positively diagnosed with HIV, though tests on the others were still under way. Of those two who tested positive, one received blood from his father, who tested negative for HIV.
Faced with overwhelming evidence, South Kazakhstan's prosecutor-general, Nurlan Aldabergenov, announced the opening of a criminal investigation on July 19.
"According to preliminary information we have now, the children have been infected through [blood] transfusions, which is considered to be a crime under Article 206.4 of the Criminal Code," he said. "People proven guilty of it face five years imprisonment."
That same day it was confirmed that tests on six of the children confirmed HIV in their blood.
The daily "Komsomolskaya Pravda-Kazakhstan" reported on July 20 that three children whose HIV cases were previously unreported had died. The paper cited chief doctor Bakhtygul Baimakhanova as saying the first tests indicating the children had HIV were received in May.
Nagima Zholdosova, the deputy chief of the South Kazakhstan Health Protection Department, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that between 1996 and 2006, 28 HIV positive people were detected among blood donors. Zholdosova said one of these people had actually donated blood 12 times.
(Merhat Sharipzhan, Mariam Beisenqyzy, and Gulim Esen of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report)