A Uganda nurse faces criminal charges after having reportedly spread a strain of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to a 2-year-old patient.
The nurse, 64-year-old Rosemary Namubiru, who later tested positive for HIV, pricked her finger on accident after the child she was attempting to give an injection to began kicking and writhing. But rather than use a new needle on the patient, she administered the child’s injection with the same needle. AIDS-Free World, the international organization following Namubiru’s trial, which began in January, suspects the act was not malicious. However, this negligence points to a larger void in hospital protocol, the organization said.
"The implications of this case are far-reaching: the Namubiru case appears to be the first in Uganda's courts dealing directly with HIV exposure and transmission," the organization said in a statement.
Infection rates from needle punctures are decidedly small. One 2007 study found that only 22 of 6,955 individuals who had been exposed to HIV through a needle puncture became infected, or roughly 0.32 percent. While this bodes well for the child who was potentially exposed to Namubiru’s virus, without a standardized system of care the chances of future transmission only increase.
AIDS-Free World expressed concern that Namubiru’s otherwise negligent act, while dangerous, set a worrisome precedent in terms of how HIV/AIDS transmission is criminalized. “Efforts to criminalize HIV transmission … could have grave consequences for the fundamental rights of people living with HIV and AIDS in Uganda and beyond.”
Namubiru has been in jail since Jan. 7. If convicted of criminal negligence, she could face up to seven years in prison. She would be the first person in Uganda sentenced under a colonial era law for spreading an infectious disease due to negligence.
Healthcare-associated infections (HAI) are surprisingly common in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that one in 25 patients, on any given day, has at least one HAI. In 2011, there were at least 722,000 HAI, 75,000 of which were fatal.
While HIV specifically is transmitted very rarely in health care settings, in places like Uganda and other African countries, unsanitary conditions and poor operating procedures make up a larger portion of the some 30 million deaths that have occurred since the AIDS epidemic began.
As for whether the 2-year-old patient Namubiru potentially infected has indeed contracted the virus, that remains to be seen. The child has been given post-exposure treatment and will again undergo HIV tests in the days to come.