April 12, 2010

Government Hiding Existence of TB, HIV and Infectious Diseases

New York/Berlin/Moscow, April 12, 2010 -- Turkmenistan’s outward show of health and prosperity to the international community is masking a dangerous public health situation, in which government officials actively deny the prevalence of infectious disease, medical data is systemically manipulated, and international standards and protocols are rarely applied in practice, according to a report released today by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which details its 10-year-experience providing medical care in the country.

During its time in Turkmenistan, MSF witnessed how people’s lives were put at risk by everyday medical negligence and widespread hazardous medical practices, with blood transfusions frequently performed without screening for HIV or Hepatitis C. Healthcare workers are operating in a culture of fear, forced to turn away critically ill patients so as not to negatively impact sensitive statistics on maternal or infant mortality, or communicable diseases. People in Turkmenistan are being failed by a healthcare system more concerned with its image abroad than with tackling the real threat to public health posed by infectious disease.

Read the MSF report: “Turkmenistan’s Opaque Health System

“It is undeniable that tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS are more prevalent than reported figures would suggest and the Turkmen government is refusing to acknowledge this reality,” said Dr. Leslie Shanks, MSF’s medical director. “International organizations in the country, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, are perpetuating these problems by giving a veneer of legitimacy to misinformation from the government and to practices that are not only ineffective but often dangerous.”

Tuberculosis (TB), particularly in its multidrug-resistant form, is perhaps the country’s most serious public health threat. Given its prevalence in neighboring countries, MSF fears a serious TB crisis in Turkmenistan, which without an immediate and significant intervention will lead to a major health crisis with broader regional implications. Rapid diagnosis and treatment of drug-resistant TB should be implemented immediately with the support of international experts if this is to be avoided.

MSF took the difficult decision to leave Turkmenistan in 2009, after its activities were further restricted. The organization concluded that it was at risk of becoming complicit in masking problems in the healthcare system rather than being able to address them.

“International organizations must take up their responsibility to actively promote transparency in the health system and cease to report as fact data that are contradictory,” Dr Shanks said.

MSF began working in Turkmenistan in 1999, when it first introduced internationally recognized standards for TB treatment in the country. For the last five years it worked in the country, MSF worked in the district hospital in Magdanly in eastern Turkmenistan to improve the quality of pediatric and reproductive health care. MSF took the difficult decision to leave Turkmenistan in 2009.

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