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Trial Scrutinizes Infant HIV Outbreak in Kazakhstan

Masaurova holds Baurzhan on her lap, while twin sister Aruzhan, who is not infected with HIV, sits in a chair to the left.  Masaurova and her husband started a foundation that has raised more than $1 million to help the mostly poor, rural families of other infants infected after hospital stays.
Ivan Watson, NPR /
Masaurova holds Baurzhan on her lap, while twin sister Aruzhan, who is not infected with HIV, sits in a chair to the left. Masaurova and her husband started a foundation that has raised more than $1 million to help the mostly poor, rural families of other infants infected after hospital stays.
Lindsay Mangum, NPR /
Selma Orazova holds her HIV-infected grandson, Sayat. Sayat's father abandoned his newborn son and 22-year-old wife when Sayat tested positive for HIV after being treated in a local hospital for pneumonia.
Ivan Watson, NPR /
Selma Orazova holds her HIV-infected grandson, Sayat. Sayat's father abandoned his newborn son and 22-year-old wife when Sayat tested positive for HIV after being treated in a local hospital for pneumonia.

When 22-month-old Baurzhan Alsiidov tumbles out of his chair and starts crying, his twin sister Aruzhan immediately breaks into tears of sympathy.

"They do everything together: Cry together, laugh together," says their father, Kanat, as he and his wife, Aliya Masaurova, try to calm the wailing children.

Baurzhan is a little bigger; Aruzhan is more talkative.

But there is an even bigger difference between the twins. Behind little Baurzhan's ears, there are two unmistakable lumps: swollen lymph nodes.

Last summer, Baurzhan tested positive for HIV.

Baurzhan is one of at least 95 children to have tested positive for HIV in southern Kazakhstan since last summer.

Neither Aruzhan nor the children's parents have the virus. Baurzhan's father thinks his son was infected last winter, while he was being treated for pneumonia at a local hospital in the city of Shymkent, about 1,000 miles south of Astana, the capital.

Now, 21 health-care workers in Shymkent are standing trial on charges of negligence and corruption. And the impact of the story reaches beyond Kazakhstan's border: The U.S. State Department says at least one American couple adopted a child from southern Kazakhstan, without prior knowledge that the infant was infected with HIV.

"This is a tragedy for everyone involved," says a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Health-Care System on Trial

The legal battle, which began in January and is expected to take several months, appears tilted towards the defendants, who face a maximum of five years in prison if found guilty.

The health workers deny all charges.

"These people are very upset, they are suffering from this tragedy," Dr. Gurjaman Kylyshbekova, the deputy director of Children's Regional Hospital Number 6, told the judge in March. "That's why what happened to them in the hospital, they are interpreting it in their own way. I think there have been some exaggerations. I don't think such bad things happened."

The senior state prosecutor is clearly outclassed by a team of a dozen highly paid defense attorneys. They frequently raise objections, while the prosecutor often fumbles for words.

The families of the HIV-infected children are mostly poor farmers from the countryside. Among the accused is the former head of the region's health department, who is also the sister of one of Kazakhstan's most powerful politicians.

Often it is the judge, a stern man dressed in a purple fez and robes, who asks defendants the harshest questions.

"Was it normal for the head of the recovery ward to accept presents from the mother of a patient in her office?" he asked, after hearing that one family gave a doctor a suitcase full of tableware. "Is this your office or your warehouse?"

Investigations Point to Blood, Transfusions

After the rash of infant HIV cases was first detected last summer, the government of Kazakhstan asked the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate.

"Immediately we identified the main issue was blood transfusion," says Michael Favorov, director of the CDC's Central Asia office in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city.

The CDC report concluded that the virus was likely spread through several hospitals in Shymkent by the repeated use of unsanitary medical equipment and the "excessive, unsafe use of blood and blood products."

Favorov notes the example of an 8-month-old child who received 24 blood transfusions to "boost the immunity," according to the hospital.

Favorov says there was no medical evidence to justify those transfusions. Their widespread use is due in part to the local belief that blood is a cure-all solution. But he also notes that there is a financial incentive to give patients blood.

"We call it a black market of blood," he explains. "The blood is a product ... You have a situation [where there] might be income generation through unnecessary blood transfusions."

In Kazakhstan, hospitals are not supposed to charge patients for supplies such as medicine and blood products. But families of the infected children say they saw one hospital worker selling blood in the halls of a Shymkent hospital.

Most Cases Occurred at a Single Hospital

More than two-thirds of the children infected, including Baurzhan Alsiidov, were treated at Children's Regional Hospital Number 6. During a recent visit on a gray, freezing day, parents and children stood in the hallways of this crumbling concrete building, waiting to see their doctors.

This is where Selma Orazova, a widow, brought her grandson Sayat when he came down with pneumonia in January 2006.

The hospital staff told Orazova that Sayat needed a blood transfusion in order to be cured.

"In the hall outside the intensive care ward, we were all asking, 'Why do they need blood? Why? Why? Why?'" Orazaova says. "But I stayed silent because the child needed proper care. I didn't want to argue with the doctor."

Orazova still has the receipt a doctor gave her after she paid the equivalent of $22 for a blood transfusion for her grandson.

Several months after his treatment, Sayat tested positive for HIV. The baby's father promptly abandoned his 22-year-old wife and newborn son, leaving them at Orazova's house.

"Even I was afraid at first to hold the baby in my arms," Orazova says. "I thought I could get sick just by touching him."

Today, Orazova grips Sayat tightly in her arms and offers the chubby boy chocolates. But living conditions for the family are difficult. After being ostracized by her neighbors, Orazova, her daughter and the 16-month-old baby have moved to a university dormitory, where they live with Orazova's teenage son in a single room and share a bathroom and kitchen with their neighbors. The family is keeping Sayat's illness secret from their neighbors.

"If you ask me, we shouldn't interrogate these doctors," Orazova says. "We should line them up and shoot them."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.