Charged with a statute that HIV community and human rights advocates say hasn’t been put to use in half a century, Ugandan nurse Rosemary Namubiru will have to wait for a court to decide what happened when she tried to insert an intravenous needle into the arm of a two year old patient about two months ago.
After the child’s parents reported their belief that Namubiru had used the same needle on the child that had pricked her own finger in the process, the 64-year-old nurse was arrested and charged with attempted murder. The charge was subsequently changed to Uganda’s penal code‘s Section 171: Negligent act likely to spread infection of disease, which says: “Any person who unlawfully or negligently does any act which is and which he or she knows or has reason to believe to be likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life commits an offence and is liable to imprisonment for seven years.”
Namubiru lives with HIV. The child who received the needle she inserted, has been tested for the virus since with negative results.
The headlines following the nurse’s arrest however, included: “Court remands suspected baby killer,” and “Killer Nurse charged with attempted murder.” Perp-walk style photographs accompanying the stories showed the nurse facing the cameras, her head obligingly pulled back by officers, to prevent her from ducking and hiding her face. The stories themselves told varying versions of events leading to her arrest including that she had used a syringe that she had “earlier used on herself,” and that she had filled a vial with her own blood which she then injected into the child. The child’s mother has since testified, according to reports, that after the needle pierced Namubiru’s skin in the course of using it, she did not get a new needle.
Noting that the media uproar appeared to play a role in the original charge of attempted murder a statement addressed to media leaders and representatives from the Global Commission on HIV and the Law highlighted the great difference in the penalty for that charge — life in prison — and the reduced charge — seven years, and pointed out that detail went unreported by the media.
As the trial proceeds, human rights and HIV treatment advocates are watching, concerned with the interaction of a justice system dusting off a harsh law that they say hasn’t been used in 50 years, trial by media and of the Ugandan Parliament’s consideration of an even harsher law, specifically targeting people living with HIV. Global health, human rights, and legal experts all strongly urge against laws that criminalize acts on the basis of HIV status.
It is hard to believe, AIDS-free World global advocacy legal advisor Seth Earn said today, that the sensationalism and prejudicial language surrounding this case would be applied to a disease other than HIV. Earn recently returned to the United States from Uganda, where he watched the trial’s recent proceedings, which are unfurling over days that are separated by as much as a week at a time.
In the most recent testimony, reported in a local news item headlined “Police Detective Pins Namubiru,” a police officer who searched the nurse’s home after the incident, produced two containers, that he said, had held the antiretroviral treatment she takes. It was not clear what purpose showing the medicine containers served, Earn said, as Namubiru is already known to have HIV.
The impact of the tone of the media coverage and the prosecution, which appear to have fueled each other, since Namubiru’s initial arrest following an apparent workplace accident is worrying both health care and HIV community members.
“They are concerned that people won’t want to get tested, won’t want to be treated,” Earn said.
A meeting with, as well as the statement addressed to media leaders and representatives have led to little clarification. One, headlined Nurses Speak Out on Rosemary Namubiru Saga noted points raised by the Ugandan Nurses and Midwives Union, including that “nurses say that government should address the issues that would have led to negligence if that’s the reason why Namubiru made such a grave mistake. Understaffing and poor pay demoralize the nursing staff especially when they work over time and no pay is attached,” while referring to Namubiru as the “nurse who was arrested about two months ago from Victoria medical centre on allegations of drawing blood from herself and injecting it in the veins of a baby who was under her custody.”
As mentioned here earlier, the HIV Medicine Association, the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care and the International AIDS Society released a statement this week expressing concern about Namubiru’s arrest and treatment. The HIV Medicine Association has also urged repeal of domestic laws specifically targeting people living with HIV.