The number of people infected with HIV in a remote village in western Cambodia’s Battambang province has risen to more than 200, including poor farmers who are saddled with loans, local officials said.
Soeum Chhom, deputy commune chief of Roka, where the infected villagers live in the district of Sangke, told RFA’s Khmer Service that 234 people had been infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as of Sunday.
They included poor farmers who are unable to work following their confirmed HIV infections, he said.
Some of those infected had been working in Thailand, he said. They had heard about the infections at their home province and had returned to be tested positive for HIV.
Soeum Chhom said more medical personnel were coming to Roka to do blood tests on other villagers who may have contracted HIV through the use of contaminated needles by an unlicensed doctor.
He said officials would consider the concerns of those infected about the loans of up to U.S. $8,000 they had borrowed from microfinance institutions.
Some of them took the loans to invest in farming while others borrowed the money to make passports to travel to neighboring Thailand for work, Soeum Chhom said.
“Each family owes at least U.S. $500,” he said.
Battambang’s provincial governor Chan Sophal told RFA that relevant authorities are providing psychological counseling to villagers who have been infected, and that he would try to help those concerned about loan repayments.
“I will work with those villagers who are infected with HIV/AIDS, and if they raise the issue about loans, I will take the issue to the provincial headquarters for discussion to provide them with solutions,” he said.
Loss of property
Some HIV-infected villagers, who all declined to be identified for fear of being stigmatized and discriminated against, told RFA that farmers in Roka had taken out bank loans worth U.S. $150 to U.S. $8,000.
They said they were concerned about losing their property to the banks that issued the loans which they obtained for agricultural development.
“I am dying,” said one villager.” I am very worried about the loans, and I am sick as well. My rice is ready for harvesting, but I can’t harvest it. My husband worked while he was sick, so he is so exhausted. He can’t do the job. He asked to hire workers to do instead.”
Other villagers expressed the same concern.
“I am concerned that I can’t make enough money to pay my debt, so when I die they will confiscate my house,” said another farmer.
Another villager said: “I am worried that the bank will confiscate my house and rice field, then I will have nothing to rely on.”
A fourth villager told RFA: “I am worried. I am sick, and I don’t have any strength. I can’t make enough to pay my debt.”
Rushing for tests
Hundreds of villagers in Roka commune have rushed to get tested at a local clinic since reports of the infections emerged three weeks ago.
In late December, authorities charged Yem Chhrem, an unlicensed medical practitioner who worked in Roka, with murder and other crimes over the HIV infection after he admitted to reusing needles to treat patients.
Cambodia’s Health Ministry last week issued a directive to Battambang health department officials, police and prosecutors, urging them to stop unlicensed health care workers from operating in their jurisdictions, The Cambodia Daily reported.
News of the infections emerged just as Prime Minister Hun Sen in December committed to stopping new HIV infections in Cambodia by 2020 as the government allocated U.S. $3.7 million of the national budget to HIV treatment from 2015 to 2017—the first time it had earmarked funds for the country’s treatment program.
According to UNAIDS, new HIV infections in Cambodia dropped by 67 percent from 3,500 in 2005 to 1,300 in 2013.
Cambodia’s National AIDS Authority says the rate of HIV infection among people aged 15 to 49 dropped from 0.6 percent in 2013 to 0.4 percent in 2014.
More than two-thirds of the 75,000 people living with HIV in the country receive antiretroviral therapy—the highest percentage of treatment access in the region, UNAIDS said.
Reported by Hum Chamroeun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.