Authorities have shuttered three unlicensed medical clinics in northwestern Cambodia’s Battambang province, according to a local health official, seven months after an outbreak of HIV in the region saw more than 270 residents test positive for the virus.
Chairman of the Battambang provincial health office Veourng Bunreth told RFA’s Khmer Service that the two “Cambodian-Chinese Friendship Clinics” in Sampov Luon district and another in Phnom Prek district had operated without licenses for more than a year, despite repeated warnings.
“They ran the clinics and were providing underground medical treatment,” he said, adding that his office had closed the three locations and seized equipment on Wednesday in the interest of public safety.
“We told them to close and apply for a proper lawful license, but they did not follow our instructions. If they obtain a lawful license, we will allow them to reopen.”
According to local media, the clinics were run by Chinese nationals and ethnic-Chinese Cambodians.
Seang Neourn, the Cambodian wife of one of the Chinese nationals, rejected the government’s claims that she and her husband had run their clinic without permission.
“The provincial health office accused us of running the clinics illegally—without a license—while using Chinese medicine to cure illnesses,” she said.
“But we have [a Chinese] Association License, properly issued by the Ministry of the Interior.”
Local rights group Adhoc welcomed the closure of unlicensed clinics in a statement, but urged the government to do so transparently and according to law.
The three clinics were the first to be shuttered by the government in the wake of a mass HIV infection in Roka commune, in Battambang’s Sangke district, where more than 270 villagers have tested positive for the virus which causes AIDS since November last year. At least eight people have died from the virus.
Authorities have since charged Yem Chhrem, the unauthorized medical practitioner who worked in an unlicensed village clinic in Roka, with murder and other crimes related to the mass infection after he admitted to reusing needles to treat patients.
The Cambodia Daily quoted Phnom Prek district police chief Song Sopheak as saying that the operation to close the clinics—led by provincial police chief Sar Thet and provincial prosecutor Nuon San—was part of the government’s response to the outbreak in Roka.
“This is the first time we’ve cracked down in my district,” he told the Daily.
“After the Roka commune case happened, our authorities were told to crack down on illegal, private clinics and healthcare providers who do not have licenses.”
In February, authorities in Battambang ordered nine unlicensed doctors to shut down their practices in the province, including six in Roka commune.
A month later, the Ministry of Health reinforced a ban on unlicensed health workers and clinics—which are commonly used in rural communities with poor access to the state’s healthcare system—and urged local authorities to implement it.
However, some villagers in remote areas of the country complain that obtaining medical treatment has become extremely difficult since the ban was reinforced in March, and nearly impossible if they encounter an emergency in the middle of the night.
According to the Ministry of Health, 5,757 private clinics became licensed in Cambodia between 2009 and 2014, and the ministry is working to approve additional facilities.
Cambodia’s dearth of licensed medical practitioners stems from the bloody 1975-79 era of the Khmer Rouge regime, when physicians, lawyers, teachers, engineers, scientists and professional people in any field were murdered, together with their extended families.
According to the World Bank, in 2012 Cambodia had a mere 0.2 physicians for every 1,000 people, or nearly 3,000 in a nation with a population of just under 15 million at the time.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.