PRAGUE, September 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- At least four children have already died from the HIV-tainted blood they received at hospitals in the Shymkent area. Officials at the three children's hospitals involved in the infections were sacked along with the chief of the provincial health department.
Slow To Investigate
But although the first HIV cases were diagnosed as early as May, the chief of the Shymkent prosecutor's investigations department, Kanat Mamaev, only announced an investigation into the source of the infection this week.
"Currently, an investigation is under way," he said. "We cannot give names to you, just facts about the infection."
Kazakh Health Minister Yerbolat Dosaev said investigators may have found the cause of the infection and the reason why it spread.
"In one of the children's hospitals, there are 150 beds and only 13 catheter [tubes]," he said. "They are using these catheters without any disinfection. It is the responsibility of local officials, not mine. If it was [my hospital] I would have sacked the local administration as of July 20 [when the first hospital officials were dismissed]."
Catheter tubes can be inserted, for instance, into patients' arms to put fluids into their bloodstream and down their throats to help them breathe. It has not been proven that this is responsible for transmitting the HIV infections.
No Money For Catheters?
Dosaev also blames local officials for not spending enough money on the health care sector in their province. Those officials counter that the central government did not give them enough money for the large population in the Shymkent area.
Dosaev may be calling for the dismissal of local officials, but there are people who are calling for Dosaev's dismissal, like parliament member Yerasyl Abilkasymov.
"I think that the governor of the province and the health minister should hand in their resignations," Dosaev said. "They are equally guilty for the slow and torturous deaths of [more than 50] children."
Abilkasymov is also collecting signatures not just to have Dosaev and Shymkent officials dismissed, but to have them tried in court for negligence. Abilkasymov pointed out that Dosaev is not a doctor but a banker by profession.
Parliament deputy Tokhtar Aubakirov called on parliament to demand that President Nursultan Nazarbaev assume control of the investigation.
"Children are the future of our state, weaned by our nation," he said. "I call for a vote to send an open letter to the head of our state, that he take this [investigation] process under his personal control."
Little Support For Infected Infants
More dismissals seem inevitable. In the meantime, Health Ministry spokesman Moris Abdulin said officials are doing what they can, though the majority of the children are getting absolutely no support.
"Currently, five children are receiving antiretro viral therapy [to keep them from getting AIDS]," he said. "Three of them are receiving treatment in a hospital, at the infection [prevention] hospital. Two of them have been released from the hospital and are receiving treatment at home."
Abdulin said more help will be provided to some of the infected infants in the future.
"In the near future it is possible a special group of psychologists will be formed for the psychological rehabilitation of children infected with HIV and the [provincial administration] has been tasked with providing material help to the children's families," he said.
Health Minister Dosaev said more extensive checks are being conducted on the parents of the infected children. He also said orders were given to stop all transfusions from the blood supply in the Shymkent area. Blood is being brought to the region from other areas of the country.
For the families of the children already infected with the HIV virus, the search for the guilty is of small comfort.
(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)
The United Nations has issued its annual report on the AIDS epidemic. Here are some of its findings:
- There are currently an estimated 40.3 million people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Of those, 17.5 million are women and 2.3 million are children under the age of 15.
- There were an estimated 4.9 million new HIV infections in 2005, including 700,000 children under the age of 15.
- An estimated 3.1 million people, including 570,000 children, died of AIDS in 2005.
- According to the report, more than 25 million people have died of AIDS worldwide since the disease was recognized in 1981.
- In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the number of HIV-positive people reached 1.6 million in 2005, up from 1.2 million in 2003. The bulk of people living with HIV in the region are in the Russian Federation and Ukraine. "Ukraine's epidemic continues to grow, with more new HIV infections occurring each year, while the Russian Federation has the biggest AIDS epidemic in all of Europe," the report states. A private Russian survey cited in the report found "no postive changes in sexual behaviour, with condom use decreasing slightly among people in their twenties."
- In Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have seen the most dramatic increases of HIV infections. In the Caucasus, the situation is described "relatively stable."
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