A Swiss music teacher and amateur acupuncturist has been charged with infecting 16 people with HIV between 2001 and 2005.

Prosecutors say the man, Maurice Goeller, used his unlicensed acupuncturist job as an excuse to stick needles infected with the AIDS-causing virus into over a dozen people, including his music school students. It’s not clear whether the HIV infections were the result of using non-sterile acupuncture needles, or whether Goeller was intentionally infecting his clients.

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According to a UPI news story, “Officials began investigating Goeller after a complaint in 2005 from student Thomas Kaiser, who was diagnosed as HIV positive and told medics he could only have been infected from Goeller’s injections. Investigators ultimately uncovered 15 others with similar stories.”

Goeller was first accused of the crime last year, when, according to CBS News, he “was indicted by a five-judge panel in Bern-Mittelland regional court on charges of intentionally spreading human disease and causing serious bodily harm, offenses that carry maximum penalties of five to 10 years respectively, said the regional prosecutor’s office in Bern, the Swiss capital.” Police said that the case has taken years to investigate and prosecute because of the difficulty in identifying victims while safeguarding their medical privacy.

Acupuncture needles, because they are claimed to work by triggering “energy meridians” which are near the skin’s surface — and, incidentally, unknown to medical science — are typically not inserted as deeply into the body as hypodermic needles used to inject or retrieve fluids from the body. Nonetheless, anything that breaks the skin’s surface has the potential to cause infection, especially if it is not properly sterilized.

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The concern over AIDS-infected needles is common in many urban legends, and caused a widespread scare in July 2012 when needles were found in airline food. In a column I wrote on the topic, I explained why the concern that those needles could cause AIDS was likely unfounded. HIV cannot exist intact for long outside the body.

However this case may be different. If Goeller had access to a supply of HIV-infected blood during the time he was allegedly infecting people, it is possible he could have committed the crimes. Goeller’s trial is expected to begin soon.

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