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Human rights, medical ethics on trial

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Michael Kaiyatsa

While it is common knowledge that every citizen, including prisoners, has a right to take part, or not, in medical research, including the right to know the medication that is being administered to them when sick, this was not the case for two prisoners who were dignosed with Multi-Drug Resistant tuberculosis (TB). WEZZIE GAUSI writes.

Four years is relatively a long time but thirty-five-year-old Uze Hamisa of Likuni, Lilongwe, still experiences fatigue, something he attributes to medical treatment he was exposed to while serving his 10-year sentence at Maula Prison.

He was convicted of theft in 2015.

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“I was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2018. To make matters worse, medical personnel told me that it was Multi-Drug Resistant TB,” he said.

Immediately after the prognosis, he was separated from the 289 inmates who were on his section of the prison.

He understood the situation pretty well.

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“Chances of transmitting the disease to others were high, considering that all of us were using one toilet and one bathroom,” Hamisa said.

It was not just him that tested positive for Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes TB; five others did, too.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis attacks any part of the body such as the kidney, spine and brain.

However, according to the World Health Organisation, not everyone infected with TB bacteria becomes sick.

“In my case, however, being diagnosed with that type of TB had implications. MDR-TB was relatively new in this country. I got depressed by the news,” he said.

After a while, they were taken to Bwaila Hospital for treatment.

Since MDR was a new kind of TB, the six inmates were used as case studies for testing drugs.

“Come to think of it; we could get an injection and 21 tablets of drugs a day. Whenever we were given the medication, we could lose consciousness immediately.

“I don’t know how we survived that procedure. I don’t even know what kind of medication I was receiving but all I know is that we were given the injection early in the morning. After receiving the injection, everyone could fall unconscious until around 5pm— meaning we were doing everything, in terms of answering to the call of nature, where we were sleeping,” he lamented.

Hamisa was not alone in the predicament. Another ex-prisoner who tested positive for MDR-TB, 36-year-old Anthony Masitala, claimed that he was forced to take medication he did not know.

“As a result, my skin complexion got darker than before because of the medical processes I went through when they were experimenting on me and others at Bwaila Hospital in Lilongwe. I suspect that, for the two years I spent at the hospital, I received tablets equivalent to three buckets of 50 litres of water and about 200 injections.

“The experiment that was conducted on us was very bad. We went through stigma and discrimination as our relatives were not allowed to come closer to us,” Masitala said.

Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation Executive Director Michael Kaiyatsa said what happened to the ex-prisoners was inhumane and a violation of human rights.

He said every person has a right to give consent before any medical experiment is done on their body.

“This is very sad. We understand that MDR-TB is a deadly disease but medical people could have informed the inmates about what they were to face through the treatment,” Kaiyatsa said.

Ministry of Health Head of Research Collins Mitambo said, before any researcher starts implementing a study, the ministry has to approve it.

He said, in the case of the ex-prisoners, it was unfortunate that the study was done on them without them knowing what they were going to face.

“No one is supposed to do any research in this country without following the right procedures. Of course, we, as an office, have not received any official complaint about what happened but patients have the right to know the medical prescription they are receiving and know the effects of the same,” Mitambo said.

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