LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Uganda's prosecution of an HIV-positive nurse accused of negligently injecting her blood into a two-year-old boy is a witch hunt that demonises people with HIV, a U.S.-based advocacy group said.
AIDS-Free World said the trial of Rosemary Namubiru, dubbed "the killer nurse" by Ugandan media, showed how shocking discrimination against HIV-positive people had become in the East African nation, once applauded for slashing HIV prevalence rates from 30 percent in the 1990s to about 7 percent today.
Namubiru, a nurse with 35 years’ experience, was trying to give the boy an injection when she accidentally pricked her finger, according to AIDS-Free World, which is following the case closely.
Namubiru, 64, stopped what she was doing, washed and bandaged her finger, then gave the child the injection, it said. The mother, afraid the same needle might have been used on her son, raised the alarm.
Namubiru's HIV-positive status was then confirmed and the child was tested for HIV. Although the results were negative, he was put on a precautionary 2-month prophylactic regime, after which he will be re-tested, AIDS-Free World said.
"As soon as the police and media learned that Rosemary was HIV positive, they decided to make a sensational story out of it. It was clear that this was a witch hunt," said AIDS-Free World co-founder Paula Donovan, who recently travelled to Uganda to meet Namubiru.
"This is not criminalisation of HIV so much as it was demonisation of HIV," Donovan told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from the United States.
She said the police leaked the case to the press so that when they arrested Namubiru on Jan. 7, journalists and cameras were present. Namubiru, who has been locked up since her arrest, was charged initially with attempted murder. The charge was later reduced to criminal negligence under Section 171 of the Ugandan Penal Code, which states that it is a crime to commit a "negligent act likely to spread infection or disease".
MANY HIV POSITIVE DOCTORS, NURSES
After hearing prosecution arguments, the court magistrate decided on Monday there was a case to answer, according to AIDS-Free World, which has sent a legal adviser to attend all Namubiru's court hearings. The case is due to resume on Thursday.
Donovan said the prosecution had not raised the question of whether the hospital knew Namubiru was HIV positive. "Everything we've heard, including from doctors who are HIV positive in Uganda, is that the tremendous number of health professionals who are HIV positive in Uganda make it impossible and unrealistic that HIV status should preclude you from being a doctor or a nurse," she said.
Nevertheless, the stigma facing those with HIV was "stunning", Donovan said. "There's a tremendous amount of hiding one's status, lying if members of your family have been affected. It's still a shameful thing," she added.
Progress in the battle against HIV/AIDS began to erode in Uganda when former U.S. president George W. Bush began to emphasise abstinence in an AIDS assistance programme known as PEPFAR, Donovan said.
"Suddenly the connection between morality and funding was inextricable," she said. "All of a sudden ... the populace started to think HIV was associated with immorality. Now there's the notion that if you're HIV positive or have someone who is HIV positive in your family, you're not God-fearing, upstanding, ethical people."