Infant Becomes Latest Person to Die in Cambodia’s Mass HIV Infection

cambodia-hiv-family-I-jan-2015-1000.jpg A home belonging to some of the 16 family members who tested positive for HIV in Roka commune, in western Cambodia's Battambang province, Jan. 18, 2015.

A seven-month-old girl is the latest victim of Cambodia’s mass HIV infections in a remote western commune where an unauthorized medical worker reused syringes.

The infant was the first to die of 16 members from an extended family of 50 who contracted the deadly virus that causes AIDS from an unlicensed medical clinic in Roka commune in Sangke district of Battambang province.

She died on Wednesday, according to a family member who declined to be named out of fear of being stigmatized and discriminated against.

“She died because of HIV/AIDS in a hospital in Siem Reap province,” the family member told RFA’s Khmer Service. “She had been sick because of the disease.  Her health could not be improved.

The infant was ill for five days before she was sent to the Siem Reap hospital, he said.

“Her mother went mad, and she cries all the time,” the family member said.

The family could not take the child’s body home because the doctor wanted to charge them U.S. $100 dollars for transporting it, he said.

“I am very sad to see this happen,” he said.  

At least 247 villagers have been confirmed HIV-positive since an elderly man in the commune was found to be infected in late November, Roka’s deputy chief Soeum Chhom told RFA on Monday.

The other infected members of the deceased girl’s extended family have been unable to work their farmland and are at risk of losing their livelihood, according to the group’s matriarch.

The 78-year-old woman previously told RFA that she and 15 of her children and grandchildren had tested positive for the HIV virus after receiving typhoid and dengue fever vaccinations, as well as intravenous treatment, from unlicensed medical practitioner Yem Chhrem.

Other family members told RFA that since learning of their infections, they have been ostracized by fellow villagers, become mired in depression, and suffered from sickness as a side effect of antiretroviral drugs, leaving them too weak to work.

Reused needles

Authorities have charged Yem Chhrem with murder and other crimes related to the mass infection after he admitted to reusing needles to treat patients.

On Tuesday, Cambodia’s health minister Mam Bunheng vowed to eliminate the country’s unlicensed medical clinics and hire more health care providers.

He said the ministry was is in the process of gathering information about the unlicensed clinics and would soon take action to shut them down.

Mam Bunheng promised to recruit more doctors and nurses to increase the number of medical professionals operating in Cambodia to 35,000 from the current 20,000, and build more hospitals to provide better health care.

Before the mass infection, the number of new HIV infections in Cambodia had dropped 67 percent to 1,300 in 2013 from 3,500 in 2005, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS).

Cambodia’s National AIDS Authority said the rate of HIV infection among people aged 15 to 49 declined to 0.4 percent in 2014 from 0.6 percent in 2013.

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.

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