AIDS 2016: Victimized, vilified by law and media, a nurse faces an uncertain future

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Science Speaks is covering the 21rst International AIDS Conference this week live from Durban, South Africa, with breaking news, updates and analysis of new research findings, evidence-based responses, and community action for global access to HIV treatment and prevention.

Journalists apologize to Rosemary Namubiru, but  the damages they dealt her career, reputation, and morale persist

DURBAN, South Africa – Rosemary Namubiru is a nurse, a job too few want or have trained for in Uganda, home to a still-escalating HIV epidemic, and to inequities that put preventive health care out of reach for many.

It is a job that offered the rewards of providing desperately needed services, and of supporting her family, who depended on her. Work in an under-staffed, over-busy clinic, helping people who were sick and scared, was how she made her world a little better, healthier, than it would otherwise be. You would think anyone who knew the importance of her work would celebrate her as one of her community’s heroes.


Stephen Lewis, Rosemary Namubiru, Lillian Mworeko at a press conference Monday at AIDS 2016 in Durban.

You would think, at the very least, they would give her the benefit of the doubt. Instead, police, prosecutors, and reporters — all people with better information than they used, took her life apart, after a workplace accident one day in early 2014 when the needle she was using to inject a feverish struggling child, instead pierced her own skin. Ms. Namubiru lives with HIV, and was on antiretroviral treatment. And Uganda politicians, who, challenging donor disapproval of the latest version of their “Antihomosexuality Act” (which substituted life imprisonment for a too-controversial death penalty for same sex relationships), were pushing a new, equally demagogic HIV criminalization act. And that was Ms. Namubiru’s bad luck. After the child’s parent apparently expressed concern over whether Ms. Namubiru had changed the needle before proceeding with the injection, police arrested Ms. Namubiru. They called journalists, who relied on their relationship with them for “news” and they paraded her in front of them, her head pulled back by an obliging policewoman to show her face. They searched her apartment and found her antiretroviral medicine, and although that made it all the more likely her virus posed a threat to no one, they used it as evidence against her. The headlines, which preceded Ms. Namubiru’s conviction called her “killer nurse” and provided vivid, false accounts of her drawing her own blood to inject into the child. (See Science Speaks coverage of Rosemary Namubiru and media malpractice surrounding her case here) She was sentenced to three years in prison. A judge freed her 10 months after her arrest, saying only that the punishment did not fit the “crime.” Although the child never contracted HIV, the headlines included: “Nurse accused of infecting baby with HIV freed.” The journalists kept their jobs.

On Sunday, Ms. Namubiru participated in a pre-conference here on the impacts of HIV criminalization laws. On Monday she made herself available to reporters in a press conference with AIDS-free World co-founder and director Stephen Lewis and regional director of the International Community of Women Living with HIV Eastern Africa Lillian Mworeko. Mr. Lewis described how in a meeting arranged by his organization, media editors finally heard her story and apologized to her. But while their apologies offered some hope for their future journalistic efforts, they did nothing for her future.

Ms. Namubiru, a grandmother, looks young for her years and strong.

“I am fine,” she said.

I asked her what she does now. “I am a nurse,” she said. “but I stay at home and do nothing.” She had thoughts for a while of opening a clinic in her community. “But I am HIV positive,” she said, and her voice drifted off. You don’t want to invade her privacy by asking any more. But she is not fine. And neither is the community that has one less nurse, for now, to tend its ills.


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