Authorities in Cambodia on Monday charged an unlicensed health worker with murder and other crimes over an apparent mass HIV infection after he admitted to reusing needles to treat patients, according to officials.
Hundreds of villagers in Roka commune, in Battambang province’s Sangke district, have rushed to get tested at a local clinic since reports of the infections emerged two weeks ago, and health officials say that more than 100 people tested positive for HIV—the virus that causes AIDS.
Yem Chhrem, a 55-year-old unlicensed medical practitioner who has worked in Roka for around 20 years and was detained last week in connection with the suspected HIV cases, has admitted reusing needles on different patients, Battambang provincial governor Chan Sophal told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“During our questioning, [Yem Chhrem] said that he … didn’t sanitize [the needles] to get rid of the virus before reusing them,” Chan Sophal said.
“We are investigating his other medical practices,” he said, adding that teams from the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations AIDS agency were testing medical waste collected from Yem Chhrem’s home.
Battambang provincial health director Roueng Bunreth confirmed to RFA that Yem Chhrem was an “unlicensed doctor” who had been treating patients in Roka commune.
Last week, the Health Ministry said that a total of 106 people, including children and the elderly, may have been infected in Roka—an infection rate authorities have said is unprecedented in the country.
But a report by the Phnom Penh Post over the weekend said that the Pasteur Institute had confirmed at least 119 cases in a third round of tests.
The Post said that at least 15 members of one family of 16 had tested positive for the virus, including a grandchild who is only six months old.
On Monday, Battambang prosecutor Noun San told reporters that the provincial court had pressed formal charges against Yem Chhrem, including intentionally spreading HIV, murder carried out with a cruel act, and practicing medicine without a license.
Yem Chhrem faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted on the murder charge alone.
No motive was given for Yem Chhrem’s alleged crimes and no deaths have been reported in connection with the case, despite the murder charge.
Local health worker
As the number of positive HIV cases in Roka grew to more than 100 last week, residents who believed Yem Chhrem had caused the infections with contaminated needles grew angry and threatened to kill him, prompting police to keep the health care worker in protective custody while questioning him.
But other residents of the commune, including some who have been found to be HIV positive, have defended him, saying they do not believe he caused the infections intentionally.
Prime Minister Hun Sen last week also expressed doubts that Yem Chhrem could have caused such a massive spread of HIV infection and urged villagers to wait for the results of a government investigation in cooperation with U.N. agencies and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hun Sen also called on villagers to respect the privacy of affected families and refrain from discriminating against them.
Local media has reported that neither Yem Chhrem nor the members of his family have tested positive for HIV.
Cambodia has won praise from the international community for its recent work in fighting HIV/AIDS.
Earlier this month, Hun Sen 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 has declined 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 Joshua Lipes.