By Sebastian Boyd and Nathan Gill
Nov. 20 (Bloomberg) — Chilean health authorities may use police databases to track down people infected with the AIDS virus after the government failed to notify 512 patients that they had the illness, denying them access to treatment.
In more than half those cases, there’s no record of any attempt to contact the patients, a Health Ministry report shows. It’s not known how many of those people have since died, according to an opposition group.
The case became an embarrassment for President Michelle Bachelet, herself a medical doctor and AIDS expert, and prompted the resignation of her friend and political ally Maria Soledad Barria as health minister last month. The government may send a proposal to congress this week to introduce stricter rules on informing people diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
“All of this is the result of the lack of priorities on the part of a government that, paradoxically, is directed by a doctor, former health minister and expert in AIDS,” said Vasili Deliyanis, executive coordinator of Vivo Positivo, a Santiago-based organization of persons with HIV and AIDS.
Opposition lawmakers and patients’ groups say the government’s failure to tell people they are HIV positive shows failings in Bachelet’s sexual health policy.
The government failed to track down people who didn’t return to testing centers to get their results, Deliyanis said.
“People are scared to come in for results because they think they are going to be given a death sentence,” he said. “There isn’t sex education in Chile so obviously people don’t know that today HIV isn’t deadly.”
Alvaro Erazo, who replaced Barria as health minister, told lawmakers Nov. 17 the government may need to tap police databases to find the infected patients. He said a bill introducing rules on how the government should inform people with HIV will be introduced tomorrow.
“One of our top concerns is the impossibility of locating some patients,” he said. “The right to treatment is an inalienable right.”
The health ministry said it doesn’t yet have figures for HIV patients who weren’t told they have the disease by private hospitals and clinics.
Since the first case of HIV was identified in Chile in 1984, 18,552 people have been diagnosed, the health ministry said. Deaths from the disease peaked in 2001, according to a health ministry report. Antiretroviral drugs are available free of charge in Chile and have helped cut the lethality of AIDS by 67 percent in 20 years, according to a United Nations report published in January.
Lack of Education
There’s still ignorance among Chileans about the dangers of AIDS, said Deliyanis. According to the UN report, only 58 percent of Chileans aged between 15 and 24 understand that condoms help prevent HIV. In 92 percent of Chilean HIV cases, transmission was sexual.
Juan Lobos, a doctor and opposition lawmaker who chairs the health commission in Chile’s lower house, said the government may have broken the law twice: Once by failing to notify patients, and again after the scandal broke as health officials rushed to inform those infected by calling mobile phones and visiting them at work.
Some infected people went to the hospital several times but couldn’t get their results because their counselor wasn’t available, said Lobos.
“There are other health services that, operating within the same law, were able to notify everyone,” Lobos said in a Nov. 14 telephone interview. “Lots of things have been done badly. We need to correct those things now.”