Kazakhstan's Health Ministry has asked the state Prosecutor-General's Office to launch a probe into claims that more than 30 young leukemia patients were recently infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) at a medical center in Astana.
The request stems from complaints from parents who alleged their children contracted HCV while being treated for leukemia at the National Center for Mothers and Children.
The parents allege in their complaints that the children -- aged 3 months to 16 years -- were infected while receiving blood transfusions at the hospital.
There is no vaccine for HCV, which causes hepatitis C, a potentially infectious disease that affects the liver.
"My daughter tested positive for HCV in May and she didn't have such a problem before," Roza Kyldebaeva, from the village of Aksuat in the East Kazakhstan Province, told RFE/RL.
Kyldebaeva's 14-year-old daughter has been receiving medical treatment at the Center for Mothers and Children since February, when she was diagnosed with leukemia.
Aside from its request to the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office, the Health Ministry has launched its own investigation into the claims. Results are expected in three to four weeks.
'Nothing To Do' With It
The National Center for Mothers and Children confirmed to Kazakh media that 11 patients tested positive for HCV during a screening in May, but it says it had "nothing to do with this diagnosis."
Doctors at the center who spoke to RFE/RL did not rule out that the patients may have contracted the virus prior to their admission to the medical center.
They noted that the children come from many different regions of Kazakhstan and that they had previously sought medical treatment, including blood transfusions, at other facilities.
National Center for Mothers and Children head Tamara Vashenkova told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that HCV infection is not uncommon among young leukemia patients, whose immune system weakens while undergoing chemotherapy.
HCV is most often transmitted through exposure to infected blood -- for example through needle sharing or blood transfusion or from mother to child during pregnancy.
Parents of the infected children, as well as health watchdogs, have rejected the medical center's version of events.
"The leukemia patients came to the hospital without HCV, and they are leaving the hospital with the virus," the head of the Ulagatty Zhanuya (Healthy Family) group, Marianna Gurina, told the Tengry News agency.
Gurina called on Health Minister Salidat Kairbekova to resign over the situation, which she called a "national tragedy."
"In such tragic situations, first of all, the health minister should have paid utmost attention to the problem," Gurina said. "We don't know how many children have been infected and we don't know how to prevent such a problem in the future."
Bakhyt Tumenova, the head of the nongovernmental organization Aman Saulyk (Well-Being), urged health officials to determine the root cause of the problem, "instead of blaming children who are already suffering from a serious disease."
"HCV is transmitted only through blood. It's not clear how the children got infected," Tumenova says. "Such an incident has happened many times in the past, but the Health Ministry does not want to admit it."
In 2010, dozens of young leukemia patients tested positive for HCV at a children's hospital in Almaty. The Health Ministry concluded at the time that the patients contracted the virus prior to being admitted to the hospital.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Orken Zhoyamergen and Kazakh media reports