It is a heart-rending story of tragedy heaped on shocking tragedy for a nine-year-old child undergoing treatment at the Regional Cancer Centre in Thiruvananthapuram since March.
The child, who arrived at RCC in March with suspected leukaemia, not only received confirmation of cancer, but has now been diagnosed with HIV as well. She contracted the deadly virus, her parents allege, sometime during her treatment at the RCC, possibly because of a blood transfusion.
What’s even worse, allege the parents, the RCC behaved in an evasive and non-transparent manner in the entire affair, keeping them in the dark until the truth of the situation spilled out.
It all began when the child, hailing from Alappuzha, was taken to a local hospital with a high fever. When a blood test showed a high white blood count, she was referred to the Vandanam Medical College. She was then sent to the RCC, where she was admitted on March 1 with a confirmed diagnosis of leukaemia, and was recommended five rounds of chemotherapy.
Her treatment went as expected for the first three rounds of chemotherapy. However, after the fourth round, she developed stomach pain and contracted pneumonia. And then, just before the fifth round, doctors found an oedema (fluid build-up) in her eyes.
“We were advised to consult the ENT and the ophthalmologist then and we did so. They suggested a surgery, saying that it was a minor one for the eye problem. But the surgery didn’t happen and we were not told the reason in delaying the surgery,” the child’s father told TNM.
Though the parents kept asking about the surgery, they allege, doctors and nurses remained evasive about it. The father said, “Sometimes we were even told that there was nothing serious, and that she had only sinusitis.”
Their suspicions rose further when the child’s mother accidentally saw a blood test result of her child. “My wife happened to see a blood result of my child in which the HIV related column was left blank. When she questioned the staff about it, she was told that there was no problem for leaving it blank,” the father said.
“Then we began to notice that there was extra care on the part of the nurses when changing bedsheets and other such things of my daughter. This made us more skeptical,” he added.
On August 25, the parents were asked to take their child to the Thiruvananthapuram Medical college, which is near the RCC, for a blood test. “But when we took her to the Medical College, blood samples of me and my wife were also taken. This was unexpected. I suspect there was some prior discussion between the persons concerned of the two hospitals for testing our blood samples. I think it was to test if we were HIV-positive. But we tested negative, while my daughter’s test result was positive,” the father said.
The result came as a shock to the family, since the girl’s blood had been tested before she was admitted to RCC, and had been negative for HIV.
The father alleged that when he then filed a complaint with the Health Minister, he did not receive a proper response. “She didn’t even take it seriously. What’s more, some of the doctors at RCC even told us that there is a tablet for HIV, and that even if someone is HIV positive he or she can live for 14 to 15 years on medicines. My daughter had only cancer when we brought her here, I don’t know what has happened after that,” he said.
Deeply worried by the response received from the RCC doctors and the Health Minister, the parents lodged a complaint with the Medical College police station two days ago. “I also met Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala. After seeing the attention the issue was getting, the Health Minister has finally acted,” the father said.
On Thursday, the government constituted an expert committee to enquire into the complaint. Headed by the Joint Director of Medical Education, K Sreekumari, the committee consists of experts from the Pathology, Blood Bank and Anti-Retroviral Treatment divisions. A statement issued by the Health Minister stated that all treatment expenses of the child will be borne by the Health Department.
It is suspected that the child contracted the HIV infection from one of the 49 units of blood that have been transfused into her during her chemotherapy treatment.
The RCC has also belatedly issued a statement, in which it says that it has already launched an internal investigation into the circumstances that led to the infection.
"The blood -borne infections could be transmitted through blood transfusion, unsafe injections or non-sterile dental procedures. HIV infection has a window period of four to twelve weeks, within which the infected person might not test positive," the statement said.
"Our blood bank has the license of Central Drug Standard Control Organisation, and guidelines for receiving blood and for ensuring that blood products are free from blood-borne pathogens were followed in the institution," the RCC statement read.
Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala has written to the Chief Minister urging that a high level medical team should enquire into the incident. He has also called for those responsible to be booked for criminal medical negligence. The Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights has also registered a suo motu case in the incident, and directed the Director of the RCC and the Kerala State Aids Control Society to submit their reports on the incident within 15 days.
The child’s father, however, is still unable to overcome the shock and despair at his daughter’s condition. “I am completely depressed. The enquiry may find out the truth of what happened. But what is the use? My child’s life is over.”