As you've already read, Libya is preparing to sentence and execute five nurses and one doctor for the crime of treating children who were later found to be infected with HIV. The real story is that (1) the children were infected before the health care workers arrived in the country, (2) the children are also infected with hepatitis B and C, and (3) all of these infections are readily spread by the use of non-sterile syringes. An inspection by Luc Montagnier, the co-discoverer of HIV, found that the hospital was not following sterile procedures and that the HIV infection was already there before the workers arrived. But, when you've got 400 kids who went to the hospital and came home with HIV, you've got to blame someone -- and Libya is blaming five Bulgarians and a Palestinian, who it says (bizarrely) were carrying out a CIA/Israeli plot.
The court has thrown out the report by Montagnier because it contradicts a Libyan report and contradicts the confessions extracted from the defendants under torture. Instead, Libya has issued a report claiming the children were intentionally infected based on a misuse of the word "recombinant." As Nature writes today:
But the court threw out the report, arguing that an investigation by Libyan doctors had reached the opposite conclusion. Montagnier believes the judgement was based at least partly on mistranslation from English to Arabic of the term 'recombinant' — instead of referring to natural recombination of wild viruses, as intended, it was interpreted to mean genetically modified, implying human manipulation.
This "mistranslation" is the kind of stubborn idiocy we have seen here at home, as anti-science groups on the right demonize research in fields like cloning by purposely confounding the completely distinct problems of molecular, therapeutic, and reproductive cloning (or embryonic and adult stem cells for that matter). They know the public won't be able to keep the differences straight -- in fact, they're counting on it, and doing all they can to make sure the public will be confused. Because the best weapon against facts is confusion.
The thing is, there's nothing confusing here. Even Libya's own report can't find evidence that the health workers infected the children because that evidence does not exist. That is the beauty of science. It doesn't matter how corrupt the courts are. It doesn't matter how brutal the ruler is, or how much oil he controls. The science stays the same. The children were already infected before the health care workers arrived. Montagnier has shown that. The issue now is getting the facts before the Libyan people and the international community.
And why should we care what goes on in Libya? I mean, it's not like our hands are clean of ill-gotten confessions or kangaroo courts here at home. And I don't just mean secret federal prisons: just yesterday here in New York, an innocent man was released from jail, where he had lived from the age of 16 to the age of 32. DNA evidence had demonstrated his innocence at the time but it was ignored during the trial in favor of a confession extracted from him as a 16 year old after six hours of interrogation in a closed room by the New York police. For me, the case is eerily similar to what we decry in Libya. Yesterday, half his lifetime later, the DNA evidence prevailed and he was let go. There is an argument to be made that we shouldn't try to force the same correct conclusion on Libya when we still perpetrate so much injustice ourselves in the US.
Unfortunately, we don't have that moral luxury. While ideally we would wait until our own hands are clean before scolding others, and in a utopia we would not have to stoop to hypocrisy, in this world we're going to have to stand and take it as the rest of the globe turns our accusations back on us. Because we need doctors and nurses who are willing to go to Libya. We need them to go to Pakistan, and Indonesia. We need them to go to the Congo. We need countries run by the nastiest dictators, home to the most vile terrorists, hotbed of the cruelest and basest oppression, to be places where health-care workers can enter and have some aegis of protection. Because those are also the places where health care is the poorest, and where the most dangerous epidemics are going to break out. And as we've learned from AIDS, from SARS, from avian flu, there is no such thing as a national virus. All disease is potentially global.
Without health care workers in every corner of the world, especially some of the poorest corners, to monitor and report and treat local disease, we put all of ourselves at grave risk of major uncontrolled outbreaks. And for those doctors and nurses to be willing to do that work, we are going to have to give them some back-up. We are going to have to be willing to stand down stubborn idiocy, no matter how much oil is behind it, and we are going to have to face our own stubborn idiocy here at home. And, just as they use idiocy to subvert facts, we must use the facts to squash idiocy. The stakes are just too high to let it go.