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Utah lab teams up with Zambia to curb child sex abuse

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27 2013 1:50 p.m. MDT

Andros Theo of Zambia trains in DNA extraction at Sorenson Forensics in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SOUTH SALT LAKE — For many years, the African country of Zambia has been fighting an uphill battle with AIDS and sexual assault against young girls and women.

A report from UNICEF showed that as of 2011, between 900,000 and 1.1 million people in Zambia were living with HIV, including 170,000 children. An estimated 680,000 children were "orphaned" because one or both parents had died of AIDS, according to the report.

Even more disturbingly, for the past decade, there has been an ongoing myth that a person infected with AIDS can be cured by having sex with a child or a virgin.

In 2003, the BBC reported "that 400 cases of child rape were reported in the first half of 2003 — a 68 percent increase on the previous year."

Katongo Chipompo, assistant commissioner of police, said the problem can partly be blamed on the social atmosphere.

"People strongly feel if they sleep with a minor, if they are HIV-positive, (they will heal). Traditional healers prescribe it," he said. "There is common belief that is propagated by traditional healers … (that people with AIDS) will recover if they have sex with children."

As part of the country's continuing efforts to address the problem, three scientists from Zambia’s Ministry of Home Affairs, including Chipompo, are in Utah for a six-week crash course given by Utah's renowned Sorenson Forensics.

The company that has built a reputation among local law enforcers as the place for groundbreaking work in forensic technology, and for solving cold cases using sophisticated DNA identification procedures, recently entered into a five-year contract with Zambia to help build a forensics lab in that country and train its police department.

In a statement from Sorenson, the company said the trio will "receive valuable training on new forensic procedures, such as DNA analysis, that they can take with them when they return to their home country."

Sorenson has helped establish labs in other countries twice in the past, including in Nigeria. The current partnership with Zambia also includes the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention and The Georgian Foundation.

The Georgian Foundation has initiated a special program to stop child sexual abuse in Zambia by helping the country improve its police department, medical examiner's office, DNA/forensics laboratory, and prosecuting cases and reaching a conviction, according to the group's website.

In many child rape cases in Zambia, the victim will not testify against their alleged attacker, Chipompo said. And the country has "been unable to proceed with the evidence of DNA," he said.

Building a new forensics lab in Zambia and being trained will help "quite a lot" in helping to resolve the problem, Chipompo said.

"Child sexual abuse and gender-based violence are all too prevalent in Zambia, and currently we don’t have any DNA capabilities to meet the forensic needs to process the forensic biology cases,” he said. "After two years of planning, we are excited to be here and begin the training to create the new lab so we will be able to better help law enforcement bring justice to the victims of these crimes and start to eradicate this horrible epidemic.”

In 2006, the Young Women's Christian Association of Zambia reported that it recorded eight cases of rape of young girls every week. A 2003 report from the group AIDS Education Global Information System claimed one in five Zambian adults is infected with HIV.

Michael Lin, a biotechnical solutions scientist with Sorenson who is helping with the Zambian trio's training in Utah, said the group will learn the basics about forensic DNA here, but will then receive additional training when Sorenson scientists visit their country.

"What we're hoping to do is give a basis, both theoretical and practical, about all of forensic DNA analysis, and then hopefully there will be continued training even after they're gone to get them up to speed with the latest standards that are involved with DNA analysis and best practices to make sure the work is accurate," he said.

Chimpompo hopes solving rape cases is only the beginning for his department.

"This, I foresee, will change our crime scene investigation," he said.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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