HIV infection: woman sues

2009-04-21 00:00

IF paramedics at an accident scene on the N3 on August 31, 2000 had handled the body of a pedestrian who was killed in the crash and then touched the area surrounding an open wound on the forehead of a motorist, it was possible they could have transferred HIV from the pedestrian to her.

This was the evidence given in the high court in Pietermaritzburg yesterday by Professor Desmond Martin, an expert in the field of virology and especially the HI virus.

He said the virus would remain viable for a considerable period after death, possibly “protected” in blood that had clotted. He said that according to the facts presented to him, the pedestrian suffered a laceration above the eye and in his experience, injuries of the face and head tend to bleed profusely. He agreed that it would be neccessary for contact to have been made with the body and thereafter with the area surrounding the woman’s injury in order for the virus to be transferred.

The case has been proceeding in the high court since late 2004. It resumed again before Judge Chiman Patel this week and has now reached the stage of final legal argument, which is to be presented tomorrow.

It was agreed when the civil trial got under way that the court would initially be called on to decide only if the province is liable to pay damages. The amount of damages to which the woman will be entitled will be decided if the court rules in her favour.

The judge has indicated that some of the issues he will be required to decide are the credibility of the witnesses called by both sides, including the paramedics who attended the accident scene.

Their evidence was that when treatment was given to the woman, who suffered an open wound to her forehead, she already had a dressing over the wound; that one of the paramedics was called upon to certify the death of the pedestrian who had been struck by the vehicle; and that he had changed his gloves before touching the body and removed the gloves and disposed of them before attending to the woman.

The paramedics deny having touched her injury after making contact with the dead man, Crophet Mandla Mthalane of Bruntville.

Another issue that has to be decided is whether it can be accepted by the court that Mthalane was HIV-positive when he died.

In her evidence in 2005, the woman — who was a keen sportswoman and very fit before the crash and her illness — said she was HIV-negative on admission to hospital.

In October 2000, just weeks after the crash and her treatment, she tested positive, with devastating effects.

She said the revelation caused her long-standing marriage to break down. Her husband has been tested for the HI virus, but continues to test negative.

She said her relationship with her husband was monogamous and the only way she could have contracted the virus was through the accident.

A friend testified that she first saw the paramedics move the pedestrian to the verge of the road. Then they “worked” on the body before coming to treat the woman, she added, saying that they struggled to insert an intravenous drip in her arm.

The paramedics denied this in their testimony.

An expert on infectious diseases who gave evidence on the woman’s behalf, Dr David Spencer, said the woman was infected “around the time” of the accident. He had examined her blood picture when she continued to suffer from unexplained illnesses following the crash, which was not in keeping with her injuries, and she tested HIV-positive.

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