HIV Patients in Cambodia’s Roka Commune Too Weak to Work

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Roka commune residents visit the local health care center to get blood tests in western Cambodia's Battambang province, Dec. 19, 2014.
Roka commune residents visit the local health care center to get blood tests in western Cambodia's Battambang province, Dec. 19, 2014.

Patients living with HIV/AIDS in northwestern Cambodia’s Battambang province have called on the government for help in supporting their families as they are too weak to work, some nine months after an outbreak of HIV in the region saw more than 270 residents test positive for the virus.

Residents of Roka commune, in Battambang’s Sangke district, who have HIV/AIDS told RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday that they are no longer able to work across the border in Thailand, as they had before becoming infected, and are earning significantly less pay for their households.

“In the past, I used to migrate to work [in Thailand], but now I can’t,” said one patient, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.

“My children and mother are also infected. I’m physically unfit for work, so I have decided to stay home.”

The patient said that since December last year, when she was found to be infected, she had been unable to travel outside of Roka for work because her condition requires constant treatment, and urged the government to do more to help sick members of the community.

Another patient, who also declined to provide their name, raised the same concerns and called on local nongovernmental organizations and authorities to provide residents of the commune with the medication they need for treatment.

More than 270 villagers in Roka have tested positive for HIV—the virus which causes AIDS—since late November 2014. A 79-year-old woman became the 10th person to die from the disease on Aug. 31.

Authorities have since charged Yem Chhrem, an 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. He is still awaiting trial.

Battambang provincial health department deputy director Sou Sanith told RFA that the Ministry of Health plans to set up a referral hospital in the area with enough beds for all affected villagers—likely by early next year—and will provide antiretroviral therapy to patients for the rest of their lives.

He said local authorities are also planning to build irrigation systems so that villagers can grow crops locally.

Additionally, Sou Sanith said he will convene a meeting on Sept. 18 between relevant authorities to discuss other ways to help patients in the short term, while the Ministry of Health and other government agencies are working on designing a longer-term plan.

Pok Socheat, provincial director of Battambang-based NGO Buddhism For Development, told RFA that 220 patients in Roka are currently receiving antiretroviral therapy, though a few had refused the treatment due to side effects.

“Patients aged between 50 and 60 years old, who are dealing with other health problems, are having difficulty taking the medication,” he said.

“We are working with five patients to convince them to take antiretroviral drugs.”

Unlicensed treatment

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 Hum Chamreoun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.





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