The fourth year medical students at Aberdeen University finished their exams yesterday. The general rule with these people is that they ‘work hard, play harder’, only I’ve never seen a more terrifying example of that cliché. I was invited to a party at Kittybrewster furnished with food and booze and the familiar ‘unacceptable behaviour’ of people who have just been freed from the stress of important exams.
I hadn’t expected any deep, meaningful conversations but Helen, an old friend from the days of Wavell House halls told me a story I’d never heard before about her time in Zambia two summers ago. Naturally, I’m always willing to hear about Africa, so I listened intently.
Many of the patients Helen was dealing with when she worked at a hospital there were at least suspected to be HIV+ (the infection rate among adults between 15 and 49 is 17%). One day, a patient came in and was diagnosed with fungal meningitis, a kind which tends to be associated with immune deficiencies. As a matter of course, the doctor treating the patient decided to perform a lumbar puncture, removing a sample of cerebrospinal fluid from the patient’s spinal cord in order to ascertain whether or not the patient had HIV. Helen was asked to hold the syringe, but since the rubber of her gloves kept sticking to the plastic, she was told to remove them.
It was this point that it became obvious the syringe was leaking potentially extremely infectious HIV+ spinal fluid. She immediately washed her hands and spent the next six months worrying could she have contracted the disease (due to manual labour, her hands had several cuts). Helen told me that it is standard procedure in the West to give staff exposed to such situations immediate prophylaxis treatment. No such thing was done for her. (She’s fine, by the way).
All this came down to a conversation about HIV, its treatment and research to find cures. I had never heard of this story before yesterday and I just don’t know why it’s not received greater attention. A patient in Berlin who was HIV Positive was being treated for leukaemia and the stem cell treatment he underwent (inadvertently, I believe) cured him of HIV as well as the leukaemia. I’m sure it’s still a long way off, but the story shines a ray of hope on finding a possible cure some day.