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Doctor under investigation for giving "unauthorised information" about H1N1 virus to the press

(IPYS/IFEX) - On 19 August 2009, doctor Indira Briceño, emergency area coordinator of the Los Andes University Autonomous Hospital Institute (Instituto Autónomo Hospital Universitario de Los Andes, IAHULA), was notified by the Attorney General's Office of a legal investigation opened against her in response to her statements to the media about the cases of AH1N1 flu in the State of Mérida, western Venezuela.

On 13 August, Alexis Rosas, IAHULA's director, announced the investigation against Briceño because, as he explained, the doctor gave "unauthorized information" to the press.

The notification points out that Briceño will be investigated for violating the Organic Penal Procedural Code, for not following the governor's instructions and for having caused "public alarm, anxiety and panic within the population". The document states that she could face civil, administrative and penal sanctions.

The investigation against Briceño began after she informed the local media about the number of deaths caused by the H1N1 virus. In her statement she also questioned the lack of organization within the regional government and its ability to deal with the epidemic and called for a communications campaign to prevent an epidemic outbreak among the population. However, she was refuted on two occasions by Nelly Molina, director of Mérida's Health Corporation, who denied that any deaths had been caused by the disease. The official figures do not show any deaths resulting from the H1N1 virus in the state.

Briceño told the press that even though the samples sent to the "Rafael Rangel" National Hygiene Institute of Caracas - the only center that has been authorized to carry out these tests - showed the suspected cases of H1N1 flu to be negative, a group of University Hospital doctors doubted the results, as the examined patients showed symptoms of the virus and died of pneumonia. Briceño told the press that she was convinced that the deaths resulting from pneumonia (nine so far) were linked to the disease, even though the authorities kept denying this.

Briceño's statements were published between June and August, in the newspapers "Diario Frontera", "Pico Bolívar", "Cambio de Siglo" and "Diario de Los Andes".

In an interview with the newspaper "Pico Bolívar", Briceño said she was being pressured to stop speaking to the media. The doctor had agreed not to make any further statements in exchange for a report from the governor's office about the issue. As this never happened, she decided to go ahead and speak to the press.

On 25 August, Briceño and 5 other doctors were summoned to make a statement before the Department of Scientific, Legal and Criminal Investigations (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas, CICPC). Briceño decided not to appear before the judicial police until her legal situation is clarified.

IPYS condemns the investigation against Briceño as an intimidation tactic and a violation of the public's right to be informed.

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