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Kazakh children infected with HIV

SHYMKENT, Kazakhstan – This industrial city is reeling after learning that at least 63 children have been infected with HIV through medical negligence many blame on corruption and the illicit sale of blood.

At least five infected toddlers have died after receiving injections or blood transfusions in hospitals in Shymkent, a city in Kazakhstan’s most densely populated region.

Valentina Skryabina, leader of the nongovernment group Nadezhnaya Opora, which works to prevent AIDS among drug addicts, is convinced the illegal sale of blood is the source of the HIV in Shymkent’s hospitals.

“Blood is an article of trade,” she said. “Hospitals are offered blood, and not always through the (official) blood center. People trade in blood like they do in human organs.”

Skryabina said addicts and the homeless have been accepted by the regional blood center because they agreed to be paid less than the official rate of $47 for about a half-pint of blood.

“Was their blood properly checked? We are not sure,” she said.

Officials say they cannot comment on Skryabina’s allegations until their investigation is over. Authorities do say, however, that five blood donors who are suspected to be HIV-carriers weren’t found at their registered addresses.

Parents in this city of 400,000 are trying to conduct their own investigation. They say regional health officials were aware of the outbreak in March, and have been trying to cover it up by pulling pages from the infected toddlers’ treatment records to eliminate any mention of blood transfusions.

The parents allege that up to 40 HIV-infected children aged 3 and under have died, but the true cause of the deaths was being concealed or attributed to diseases such as cirrhosis. Authorities declined to comment on these allegations, too, pending the investigation.

Some 13,000 children who were possibly infected have yet to be tested. Adults, too, could be infected: so far, three mothers of infected toddlers have tested positive for HIV.

Lawmaker Satybaldy Ibragimov says nothing will improve until Kazakhstan roots out corruption, which penetrates even universities where future doctors are graded according to the amount of money they give professors – and later treat people based on their ability to pay.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s government has taken tough action. The health minister and the regional governor were fired this month, and several top regional health officials, the head of the regional blood center and several senior doctors are under criminal investigation.

New governor Omyrzak Shukeyev, former mayor of the capital Astana, called the situation in Shymkent’s health care system “a catastrophe.” He ordered an appraisal of medical staff in the region to root out incompetent or corrupt staff.

Shukeyev, under orders from Nazarbayev to urgently resolve the crisis, pleaded with experts at an AIDS crisis meeting this week: “I’m waiting like nothing else for a moment when you say that the virus has been contained.”

“We cannot give you a time frame. This is going to be a lingering epicenter of disease,” replied Vyacheslav Dudnik, the region’s new health chief.

Each infected toddler’s family will be given about $800 – twice the average monthly salary – in compensation and all treatment will be paid for by the government.