The case of a 12-year-old Saudi girl accidentally given a transfusion of HIV-positive blood may be changing the way the country’s strict Muslim addresses AIDS.
Reham al-Hakami, who has sickle-cell anemia, received a transfusion in February at a hospital in her hometown of Jazan.
Hours later, nurses notified her family that the blood tested positive for the virus.
It’s unclear if al-Hakami, who was taken to a specialist in Riyadh, has tested positive—but the incident has had far-reaching repercussions throughout Saudi Arabia.
The lab technician involved, the hospital director and several health ministry officials have been fired—while others, including the coordinator of the region’s AIDS program, have been fined. The public has been outraged and there have also been calls for the Health Minister’s resignation.
Since the incident, the Saudi Ministry of Health issued a statement claiming responsibility and promising an full investigation, but somehow avoiding mentioning the word “HIV”:
Following this terrible mistake, MOH has promptly formed an urgent investigation team of specialists.
Furthermore, the committee mandated to consider the violations of Health Profession Practice System and its executive regulation was assigned to study the issue. Based on the recommendations of these committees, MOH has issued the following decisions:
Saudi Arabia offers free medical care to those with HIV or AIDS, but social prejudices against the virus and homosexuality make it difficult for infected individuals to come for treatment and for those at risk to get essential education on safer sex practices. (The country’s byzantine legal system has issued punishments for homosexual acts that range from imprisonment and flogging to the death penalty.)
Meanwhile, it’s estimated that up to 80,000 Saudis are HIV-positive.
As Medical Daily points out, the young girl’s misfortune parallels a pivotal moment in AIDS awareness in America:
In 1984, 14-year-old hemophiliac Ryan White was diagnosed with HIV after a tainted blood transfusion.
The knowledge that HIV could affect children caused a wave of AIDS coverage in the news media, leading to increased sympathy for victims and an understanding of the disease as a national public health crisis.
International public health advocates hope that this episode leads to greater awareness of HIV/AIDS in Saudi Arabia, and eventually erodes the stigma against its victims.
Of course, following White’s diagnosis, the American media was quick to paint him as an “innocent” victim of the virus. It took more than a decade for our society to extend its awareness and sympathy to all people living with HIV or AIDS, children or otherwise.
It’s probably wishful thinking that the situation with Reham will spark a new focus on AIDS prevention and education in the notoriously repressive regime, but we can always pray.