Local advocate calls ruling a legal precedent to stigmatize and discriminate against people living with HIV
Rosemary Namubiru, a nurse in her mid-60s living with HIV, who was charged with criminal negligence after a workplace accident involving an injection, was sentenced to three years in prison in a Ugandan court today. According to people in the court who gave accounts to AIDS-free World, prosecutors urged an even stiffer sentence, saying it would set an example for other medical professionals, and that her conviction would highlight to President Yoweri Museveni the importance of a signing a bill just passed by the Ugandan Parliament, criminalizing “attempted” and “intentional” HIV transmission.
In a case that has highlighted the burdens faced by people living with HIV in a country with a politically-charged response to the epidemic, a case that has indicated the challenges faced by medical professionals in an understaffed and overwhelmed healthcare system, and a case that has yielded the haunting image of nurse’s head pulled back by police hands to force her to face news cameras, the strangest part yet remains that what the case against Namubiru was supposed to be an example of remains unclear.
Police arrested her in January after the mother of a struggling child to whom the nurse was trying to administer an injection reported that the needle used on the child had first pierced the nurse’s finger. For that, Namubiru became the first person to be charged under a law passed 50 years earlier criminalizing negligence in risking the spread of an infectious disease. The child was tested for HIV and does not have the virus. Headlines today, however, tell the world that the “Ugandan Nurse is Jailed in HIV transmission case.” And although she was charged and found guilty only of negligence, the first sentence of the Associated Press report, published and broadcast around the world and across the United States reports that she was sentenced for “allegedly trying to infect her patient with HIV.” A story in Uganda’s New Vision refers to her simply as “HIV-Injection Nurse.”
While still inaccurate, these represent a great stride from the tone of earlier articles that referred to Namubiru as “Killer Nurse,” and “Baby Killer.” But they still raises the question of what the future holds — for Namubiru, for people living with HIV, for medical professionals, and for efforts to fight HIV in Uganda.
“She was sentenced long before by the media, the police and the public,” Lillian Mworeko, regional coordinator of the International Community of Women Living with HIV Eastern Africa.
Paula Donovan, co-founder and co-director of the nonprofit AIDS-free World had already reported that her organization, and other HIV advocates had spoken to heads of Uganda media houses about the incorrect content and irresponsible tone of their coverage of Namubiru’s case. Today, she noted, media reverted to their earlier approach. In a statement to be released in full later today, the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care also stressed the effect of inaccurate media coverage, saying: “The impact of this on-going media firestorm on HIV education, prevention and engagement in care in Uganda is likely to contribute to the further reversal of gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS in that country.”
Noting that the magistrate had already said Namubiru posed a danger to others when denying her bail, Mworeko added that the magistrate had said Namubiru should have been especially careful because she has HIV, indicating “that a mistake can be made but not when you are HIV positive. . . . It is a dark day for us as PLHIV ” (people living with HIV).
AIDS-free World and ANAC statements also noted the realities in Uganda surrounding the case.
“The government is now acting with a recklessness that will cause some of the country’s most successful HIV programs to self-destruct,” Donovan wrote today. “Soon, upstanding citizens will rationalize that if they’re ever wrongly accused of intentional transmission, they’ll be able to present just one ironclad defense: they must be ignorant of their HIV status. The irony is that after decades and billions spent encouraging people to act responsibly, the Ugandan government’s irresponsible, ill-considered actions will now force good people to avoid HIV testing as their only protection against bad laws.”
Calling today’s sentence unjust and unwarranted, ANAC also expressed solidarity with Namubiru.
“At 65 years old, she should be contemplating retirement and enjoying time with her grandchildren, not facing years in prison,” the statement says. “In a country with an overall HIV prevalence rate of 7.2 percent and rates significantly higher in women in certain areas, Rosemary did the right thing, she was tested, on antiretroviral medications and she disclosed her HIV status. ANAC will continue to support her, HIV positive nurses around the world and all people living with HIV in confronting fear, stigma and discrimination.”
A legal team is exploring the opportunity to appeal the judgement and will proceed when a written record of it is made available, Mworeko wrote.