It was a case of the right arm not knowing what the left arm was doing. The medical team at the Aluche immigrant internment center in Madrid was unaware that Samba Martine, a 34-year-old Congolese woman who died there on December 19, 2011, had the HIV virus. Yet the heads of the temporary immigrant detention center in Melilla, where she was originally taken after her long journey to Spain, had tested her for AIDS. Two months before she was transferred to Madrid and three months before she died, the Melilla center found out that the test results were positive and that her condition was very serious.
This lack of coordination between both centers is relevant, because experts consulted by this newspaper feel that Samba’s death could have been avoided. Before passing away, the woman made use of the Madrid center’s health services up to 10 times, yet the physicians disregarded the severity of the pain she was experiencing. The Congolese migrant was treated for perianal itching, coughing, chest pain, flu symptoms and persistent headaches, among other ills, yet she was only taken to a hospital on the same day of her death. Had her condition been known, more careful medical treatment could have been dispensed.
In October, a Madrid court dismissed the charges of medical negligence brought by the victim’s mother, Clementine Nijba, and did not consider that it was the doctors’ duty to have tested Samba for AIDS. Her mother appealed to the High Court and filed a complaint with the government, demanding compensation for the malfunctioning of state agencies. It was then that Nijba produced the AIDS test practiced on Samba at the Melilla center.
As further evidence, Nijba presented a report by Concepción Colomo, a doctor specializing in AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, who states that Samba also had advanced anemia and a very low white blood cell count, putting her at great risk of contracting bacterial, viral or fungal infections. “Samba Martine’s immunodeficiency was left untreated, exposing her to contracting an opportunistic infection, which is ultimately what happened, resulting in her death,” explains Colomo in her report.
José Ramón Arribas, an HIV specialist at La Paz hospital in Madrid who has no ties to the case, said that Samba’s test results suggest she should have seen a doctor a few days later even if she did not present any outward symptoms. “In that condition, any other symptom must be taken really seriously because it could be caused by severe infections,” he explains. Strong, persistent headaches or chest pain, which Samba complained of days before her death, are among those particularly relevant symptoms for advanced cases.
“Cryptococcosis, the disease she died of, is typical of AIDS patients, especially those from Africa, and headaches are one of the symptoms,” says Arribas, adding that it is “perfectly treatable.”
The Ombudsman has opened an investigation after detecting the absence of coordination protocol between the medical services at both centers — one answers to the Interior Ministry, the other to the Labor Ministry.
Who knows whether in Samba’s case, a better exchange of information between agencies might have saved her life.