Terra Sigillata

We last spoke in September about the case of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor unjustly imprisoned in Libya for the inconceivable charge of intentionally injecting 426 children with HIV at Al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi. These health care workers are guilty of nothing other than volunteering as medical missionaries to care for ill children in an underserved medical system. Increasing evidence is suggestive that the workers are scapegoats for the poor medical conditions existing at the hospital that likely led to the spread of HIV across pediatric patients.

Nature has now published extensive phylogenetic analyses HIV cases from the hospital that show that an institutional HIV and hepatitis C viral epidemic was running rampant well prior to the arrival of this health care team in March 1998. Most importantly, the family of viruses causing infections in the hospital are highly homologous to those endemic to Libya and North Africa prior to 1998.

According to Fig. 2 of the current Nature paper, regardless of which modeling method was used,

the estimated date of the most common recent ancestor pre-dated March 1998, sometimes by many years.

As Revere notes in his thorough post on the situation to date, “This supports the overwhelming evidence that the most likely mode of infection was through poor hospital hygiene, which independent investigations of the hospital showed was prevalent.”

Hence, the data generated by this painstakingly-conducted new work further exonerates the imprisoned health care workers. Orac’s post at Respectful Insolence first brought my attention to coverage by Human Rights Watch who have documented that several of the medics have been tortured:

Four of the six defendants, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, told Human Rights Watch in May that they confessed after enduring torture, including beatings, electric shock and sexual assault. Libyan officials denied all of the defendants prompt access to a lawyer, they said. In June, a Tripoli court acquitted 10 Libyan security officials accused of using torture against the defendants.

Revere articulates a call to arms,

We hope that once again the science blogosphere will help marshal the potent support of the internet community in this signal human rights case. We remind all bloggers, letter writers and anyone else that expresses an opinion about this to heed the prudent advice of those long involved in these kinds of cases: the objective is to help our colleagues held prisoner and under threat of a death sentence. It is not to relieve our own feelings. Governments don’t usually respond to abuse or condemnation. Nor is it necessary. The science speaks loudly enough on behalf of these medical workers, but it must be heard by the Libyan authorities who have it in their power to assure a fair and just outcome to this this tragedy.

The workers are to be sentenced on 19 December and the sentence is expected to be death.

What can you do?

Mike Dunford put together a list a couple of months ago of contact information to make governmental officials aware of this miscarriage of justice. One of my letters got the attention of the Washington office of one of my US Senators and I have let them know of these new scientific developments.

We all know health professionals who volunteer for medical missionary work around the world. This horrible situation could happen to anyone we know. Even if you write just one letter or e-mail, make one phone call, or post about this case on your own blog, we can collectively make a difference before it may be too late.