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Libya Frees Foreign Medical Workers

24 July 2007 (All day)
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Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

Happy ending.
A Bulgarian nurse reunites with a relative outside the French presidential plane.

Five foreign medical workers boarded a French government jet last night in Tripoli, Libya, and landed in Sofia, Bulgaria, early this morning, greeted by a cheering crowd of thousands. Their arrival is a surprise happy ending to an 8-year political saga that has involved allegations of bioterrorism, torture, millions of dollars in ransom money, and an international coalition of scientists working tirelessly to find the real reason behind the infection with HIV of more than 400 Libyan children.

Only last week it looked as if the medics--four Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian medical intern--would be spared the firing squad but nevertheless face life in prison (ScienceNOW, 18 July:). The medics were jailed in 1999 and accused of deliberately infecting children with HIV at a Libyan hospital where they worked. In December, however, a group led by Oliver Pybus, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, U.K., published a study showing that the outbreak started before the medics arrived in Libya. A study of the Libyan hospital in question by European health experts soon after the outbreak suggested that its real cause was widespread unsanitary practices at the hospital.

The medics' release is the outcome of furious last-minute dealing between Libyan and European politicians, although the precise terms of the deal remain unclear. Libyan officials said today that their demands were met. Principal among them were payments of $1 million in "blood money" to each of the families of the infected children. European officials have denied that they paid any money to the families. According to Seif al Islam, a son of the country's longtime dictator, Libya paid the families after European countries had agreed to forgive Libya's debts to them.

Bulgarian media reported that other Libyan demands included full reinstatement of diplomatic and economic ties with Europe, lifelong treatment for the infected children, the renovation of the children's hospital in Benghazi where the outbreak occurred, aid to upgrade Libya's railway and highway infrastructure, and expert help restoring Libya's many crumbling archaeological sites. No European official could be reached to confirm whether these demands were part of the deal.

At least one aspect of the deal is known, however. Today, Mark Kline, president of the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, shared a memorandum with Science stating that Libyan medics will be sent to Baylor for training, and public health experts from Baylor will regularly visit Libya. "I hope that the release of the nurses and doctor will allow the focus to shift to the more than 400 Libyan children tragically suffering from HIV/AIDS," says Kline.

But for others who have been involved in the case, this is not the end of the story. One unanswered question is how many Libyans are infected with HIV and how quickly the epidemic is spreading there. A likely source of the virus is the huge number of infected African refugees flooding into Libya in recent years. Only with good epidemiological data and cooperation from Libyan health officials, says Pybus, will it be known whether the Benghazi outbreak was a rare one-off or a sign of a growing epidemic in the country.

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