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Examination Following a Recent Assault

While it is rare that a victim of rape during torture is released, it is still possible to identify acute signs of the assault. In these cases, there are many issues to be aware of that may impede the medical evaluation. Recently assaulted victims may be troubled and confused about seeking medical or legal help due to their fears, sociocultural concerns or the destructive nature of the abuse. In such cases, a doctor should explain to the individual all possible medical and judicial options and should act in accordance with the individual’s wishes. The duties of the physician include obtention of voluntary informed consent for the examination, recording of all medical findings of abuse and obtention of samples for forensic examination. Whenever possible, the examination should be performed by an expert in documenting sexual assault. Otherwise, the examining physician should speak to an expert or consult a standard text on clinical forensic medicine. When the physician is of a different gender from the victim, he or she should be offered the opportunity of having a chaperone of the same gender in the room. If an interpreter is used, then the interpreter may also fulfil the role of the chaperone. Given the sensitive nature of investigation into sexual assaults, a relative of the alleged victim is not normally an ideal person to use in this role. The individual should be comfortable and relaxed before the examination.

A thorough physical examination should be performed, including meticulous documentation of all physical findings, including size, location and colour, and, whenever possible, these findings should be photographed and evidence collected of specimens from the examination. The physical examination should not initially be directed to the genital area. Particular attention must be given to ensure a thorough examination of the skin, looking for cutaneous lesions that could have resulted from an assault. These include bruises, lacerations, ecchymoses and petechiae from sucking or biting. Lesions on the breasts, particularly from bites, should be enquired about in women who have been sexually assaulted. When the legs are examined, the inner thighs should be inspected thoroughly. Where women have had their legs forced apart, there may be finger bruising, scratches, cigarette burns, incisions and other wounds, or their late consequences.

When genital lesions are minimal, lesions located on other parts of the body may be the most significant evidence of an assault. Even during examination of the female genitalia immediately after rape, there is identifiable damage in less than 50 per cent of the cases. Anal examination of men and women after anal rape shows lesions in less than 30 per cent of cases. Clearly, where relatively large objects have been used to penetrate the vagina or anus, the probability of identifiable damage is much greater.

Where a forensic laboratory is available, the facility should be contacted before the examination to discuss which types of specimen can be tested, and, therefore, which samples should be taken and how. Many laboratories provide kits to permit physicians to take all the necessary samples from individuals alleging sexual assault. If there is no laboratory available, it may still be worthwhile to obtain wet swabs and dry them later in the air. These samples can be used later for DNA testing. Sperm can be identified for up to five days from samples taken with a deep vaginal swab and after up to three days using a rectal sample. Strict precautions must be taken to prevent allegations of cross-contamination when samples have been taken from several different victims, particularly if they are taken from alleged perpetrators. There must be complete protection and documentation of the chain of custody for all forensic samples.

If the woman is being examined shortly after the rape, it is important to discuss issues of pregnancy and emergency contraception, and however long has passed since the assault, sexually transmitted diseases (especially gonorrhoea, chlamydia, syphilis and trichomoniasis) and other infectious diseases such as Hepatitis B (HBV) and HIV must be considered (see below), and treated where present if the necessary facilities are available. If rape occurred within the previous seventy-two hours, consideration must be given to the administration of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) of anti-retrovirals (ARVs) for preventing infection by HIV and this depends on a detailed assessment of the nature of the sexual assault. The risk of infection with HBV should be assessed and the need for immunisation determined.

Some women are raped persistently over a long period which increases the likelihood that they will become pregnant; in some cases they are then detained until it is too late to consider termination of pregnancy (if that would otherwise be an option). In such cases routine ante-natal examinations should be performed including, if possible, ultrasounds. This will enable the time of conception to be estimated.