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Kazakh Health Workers Jailed Over HIV-Infected Children

(InterPressNews) June 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A court in southern Kazakhstan has sentenced 17 physicians to up to eight years in prison for infecting dozens of children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"As of today, we have 118 children registered [with HIV], a total of 10 children have died, and one child was adopted by a couple from abroad," Aqbope Altynbekova, the head of the South Kazakhstan regional HIV/AIDS Protection Center, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

"The inspections are still under way," she added. "We checked some 10,000 kids to see if they were infected. But there is no guarantee that no more HIV cases will be found. We still could find one."

Fourteen of those children's mothers were also infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Parents Protest Sentences

The trial to determine who was responsible for the mass HIV infections at the three children's hospitals started in January. Today, the court in Shymkent found 21 medical officials guilty in the case.

Seventeen of the 21 health-care workers on trial were given prison sentences ranging from nine months to eight years. The others were given suspended sentences.

Several parents screamed out at the defendants during the trial, calling for one of them to receive the death penalty. Police held a group of parents back as they tried to confront the defendants.

Sagadat Masaurov, a lawyer representing the HIV-infected children and their parents and the head of the Protect Children from HIV/AIDS Foundation, said his clients will appeal the court sentences "by all legal means," on the grounds that they are too lenient.

So many people in the Shymkent area were affected by the case that the trial had to be held in a local theater to ensure enough room for everyone who wanted to attend.

Corruption And Contamination

More than 100 children, some younger than 1 year old, have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS since May 2006, when the first cases were reported. All the children received medical attention at one of three children's hospitals in the area.

Judge Ziyadinkhan Pirniyaz ruled that "All the children were infected because doctors were not fulfilling their functions as they should have and because of inadequate control by the [regional] health department." Pirniyaz said the trial process had determined there was "a system of corruption and an illegal blood trade flourishing in the hospitals."

Investigators determined that contaminated blood was used to provide transfusions to some children. The same intravenous equipment was then used on other children without being properly sterilized.

Bosses Got Off Lightly?

Nursulu Tasmagambetova, the former director of health care in the South Kazakhstan region; her husband Ryskulbek Baikharashev, the former director of the committee for medical quality in the South Kazakhstan region; Tasmagambetova's former deputy, Nagima Zholdasova; and the former head of the provincial children's hospital, Gulnar Satkanova, all received three-year suspended sentences.

The three were taken from the trial in a van as relatives of the infected children threw bottles and stones at the vehicle and some shouted "Death!"

Tasmagambetova's suspended sentence will likely be an issue for independent media and opposition groups, since she is the sister of former Prime Minister and current Almaty Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov.

Marpiya Butabaeva, chairwoman of Ghibrat (Wisdom), the Shymkent-based Center for the Protection of the Mother and Children's Rights, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service: "The bosses at the top got lenient sentences, while those who were under them got tougher sentences.... There is nothing new in this, it has happened before and it is happening now again. Of course it's unfair."

The sentences are not the end of the story in Shymkent. As Altynbekova said, new HIV/AIDS cases among the children of Shymkent are discovered every month.

After news of the first cases broke last year, President Nursultan Nazarbaev ordered an overhaul of the health-care system and better checks on the quality of blood in the country's blood banks.

(Edige Magauin of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)

RFE/RL Reports On AIDS

RFE/RL Reports On AIDS

An HIV-positive Ukrainian woman and her daughter (epa)

FACES OF THE EPIDEMIC: HIV-infection rates continue to soar in many parts of RFE/RL's broadcast region, from Ukraine and Russia to Central Asia. RFE/RL frequently reports on the problems associated with the pandemic and efforts to combat them.


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