The number of residents of a remote commune in northwestern Cambodia who have been confirmed as HIV positive soared to 106 on Wednesday as more people rush to get tested following reports of a mass infection health officials say was likely caused by contaminated needles.
Teng Kunthy, secretary general of Cambodia’s National AIDS Authority, said the new total confirmed as positive for HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—marked an increase from 82 on Tuesday, an infection rate which authorities had already said was unprecedented in the country.
“Our latest data shows 895 people have undergone blood tests and 106 have tested positive for HIV,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that additional residents of Roka commune in Battambang province’s Sangke district were still undergoing testing.
The 895 residents of Roka who have been tested since reports emerged last week of a mass infection in the area come from all of the commune’s six villages, Teng Kunthy said.
He said that while all of the 2,770 residents of Roka had been encouraged to undergo a screening, testing was not mandatory.
Local media has reported that the infected residents of Roka range in age from 3 to 82, and Teng Kunthy said Wednesday that at least 25 people are under the age of 15.
Infected individuals are being monitored and provided with treatment, he said.
According to Teng Kunthy, an initial investigation suggests that the HIV infections were spread by contaminated needles during medical treatment administered by an unlicensed health-care provider.
“The villagers said they weren’t infected through sexual contact and believed they were infected by contaminated needles,” he said.
“However, [the Ministry of Health doesn’t] rely only on the suspicions of the people, we need to conduct an investigation using scientific means.”
Suspected health-care worker
Authorities had been searching for Yem Chhrem—an unlicensed medical worker serving Roka commune who they said had disappeared from the area in recent days—in connection with the mass infection.
On Wednesday, his son-in-law Chhem Chhoeun told RFA that Yem Chhrem was visiting a family outside of Battambang, but had already returned to the province.
He said that Yem Chhrem had not returned to his home in the commune, but was willing to speak with authorities if they wanted to question him.
“[My father-in-law] has been practicing his career for many years without any incident,” he said.
“He is also wondering about the cause of the infection, but authorities have advised him not to return home for his own security.”
The Phnom Penh Post reported that major crime officers from the Battambang provincial police are now in control of the investigation, which is being assisted by the Child Protection Unit (CPU)—a joint initiative between the Cambodian Children’s Fund and the Cambodian National Police.
The Post quoted CPU director of operations James McCabe as saying that his agency had dispatched a team to Battambang early Wednesday with a group of experts to liaise with provincial officers to investigate an “alleged perpetrator that might have spread HIV and affected children within a small amount of communes.”
UNAIDS Country Coordinator, Marie-Odile Emond told Deutsche Presse-Agentur that the prevalence of HIV infections in Roka was “unusually high.”
“That is why the investigation is happening and to ensure that proper practices are applied,” Emond said.
She advised residents of the area to determine their status because treatment is available and free in Cambodia.
Cambodia has won praise from the international community for its recent work in fighting HIV/AIDS.
Last week, Prime Minister 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.