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Dr. Oliver Pybus: The Libyan Children were Infected before Arrival of Bulgarian Nurses and Palestinian Doctor: HCV & non-sterile syringes
  11 December 2006 | 22:10 | Darik Radio
Dr. Oliver Pybus, Oxford University, in an interview with Darik Radio
On December 19th, a Libyan Court is expected to pass final judgements on five Bulgarian nurses accused of deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV in Libya. Meanwhile, the problem is not only being internationalized. Two days ago, the new edition of the Nature Magazine published a study by the Oxford University, which proves that the children who were treated in the hospital in Benghazi had been infected with HIV long before the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor started to work there. An international team led by Oliver Pybus of Oxford University used the genetic sequences of the viruses isolated from the patients to reconstruct the exact history of the outbreak. The study revealed that the children's blood was infected before March 1998. Darik Radio got through to Dr. Oliver Pybes. Here is what he said:
Q: Dr. Pybes, how exactly did you test the blood samples from children infected with HIV and what were the results?
Oliver Pybus:The blood samples were taken by our assistants headed by Professor Vittorio Collizi. Prof. Collizi managed to isolate the virus from the blood samples and to reconstruct the sequence of its development. Then, they sent this genetic data to Oxford and our study was focused on analyses of the cases of genetic difference between different viral infections. The origin of the different types of viruses, which the children were infected with, is before March 1998. Consequently, the different viruses, which caused the infection in the Benghazi hospital, were already present in the hospital or around it before the arrival of the Bulgarian and Palestinian medics in March 1998. Another important fact we found out was the origin of the viruses - Western Africa and Egypt. We think they reached Libya by means of the many economic emigrants who travel across Libya to Europe. The Libyan government has already shown concern over the emigrants, who come to the country. This fact reveals the reason why viruses from Western Africa have been found in Libya. The most reasonable explanation of the human-to-human transmission is the poor hygiene in hospitals. We have 44 samples from HIV-infected people and about 60 samples from people infected with Hepatitis C.
Q: How exactly did you prove that the virus got into the children's bodies before the arrival of the Bulgarian and Palestinian staff in the hospital in Benghazi?
Oliver Pybus:We demonstrated this through many statistic techniques. The number of the genetic differences between the two viruses depends on the period of time during which they had shared a common source. By measuring the different genetic differences between the two viruses, which had been isolated from two infected children, we could estimate how long ago they had shared a common source and how long ago the transmission chain, which separated them, had started.
Q: Can the evidence you have be disputed?
Oliver Pybus:No, not really. We made the analyses very carefully. The pace of the change of the virus absolutely concurs with the genetic material we have. We made sure that we had used the speed of evolution, which is specific for the viral types we analyse and for the viral genome, which we studied.
Q: When did the viruses get into the children's bodies, according to your study?
Oliver Pybus:We can't say when the virus got into each child. But we can say that the outbreak was before March 1998. I mean the whole outbreak, not the infection of each child.
Q: What time, before 1998, were the children infected?
Oliver Pybus:It depends on the virus, we study, and the method of analysis, which we use. In order to make sure that the results are clear, we used a wide range of methods of analyses. We found out that whatever method we used the common source existed before March 1998. It seems that the dissemination of Hepatitis C started shortly before the HIV epidemics. It probably happened because of a non-sterile hypodermic needle. The virus of Hepatitis C is much more easily transmitted through injections than the HIV virus. That's why, we suppose that the Hepatitis C epidemics broke out before the HIV epidemics.
Q: Do you expect the Libyan court to accept the results of your analysis?
Oliver Pybus:I have no idea. I am not a lawyer and I don't understand the legal procedures very well. Sometimes I think that lawyers also don't understand the scientific procedures very well.
Q: Why wasn't your method used before?
Oliver Pybus:We received the data base only now. Our group of researchers have specialized in such type of analysis for 10 years. However, the data was received recently and only now we realized that such type of analysis can be used exactly in this case. We received the data at the end of October. Before that we could not make analyses. We worked hard in order to be ready on time, before the verdict is pronounced.
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