Health Minister Vows to Rid Cambodia of Unlicensed Medical Clinics

cambodia-mam-bunheng-hiv-jan-2015-1000.jpg Mam Bunheng (R) listens as Ke Sovannaroth (L) addresses the media at the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh, Jan. 27, 2015.

Cambodia’s Minister of Health on Tuesday vowed to eliminate the country’s unlicensed medical clinics and hire more health care providers, after an unauthorized medical worker who admitted to reusing syringes was linked to a mass HIV infection in a remote western village.

Speaking to reporters following a closed door meeting with the National Assembly (parliament) Social Affairs Commission in the capital Phnom Penh, Mam Bunheng said the Ministry of Health is in the process of gathering information about the unlicensed clinics and would soon take action.

"After we gather enough statistics about the unlicensed clinics, we will shut down them all," he said.

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

He urged patients to ensure that they are dealing with licensed health care providers before receiving medical treatment.

Mam Bunheng met with the Social Affairs Commission on Tuesday after being summoned by the panel to explain what measures his ministry would take to prevent mass infections of HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—following a recent one in Sangke district’s Roka commune, in Battambang province.

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’s Khmer Service on Monday.

Authorities charged unlicensed medical practitioner Yem Chhrem, who worked in Roka, with murder and other crimes over the mass infection after he admitted to reusing needles to treat patients.

In late December, the Ministry of Health issued a directive to Battambang health department officials, police and prosecutors, urging them to stop unlicensed health care workers from operating in their jurisdictions.

Following Tuesday’s closed door meeting, Social Affairs Commission chairwoman Ke Sovannaroth told reporters that her panel had asked Mam Bunheng to stamp out unlicensed health care providers and the corruption that allows them to operate in the country.

"We requested the minister reform the health care system to reexamine state and private health care providers," she said.

She also urged the government to take full responsibility for the mass infection in Roka commune.

Villager petition

A day earlier, at least 30 villagers from Roka who had been confirmed positive for HIV signed a petition addressed to the Social Affairs Committee calling for assistance with loans and requesting pensions to help support their families saying they were unable to work due to their illness.

The petition, which was received by opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker Mu Sochua, said that many of those infected in Roka owed money on loans which they had borrowed from microfinance institutions.

One of the petitioners, who declined to be identified for fear of being stigmatized and discriminated against, told RFA she had been in debt for nearly two years after taking out an agricultural loan, but had never missed an interest payment until learning she was sick.

“Before I used to pay the interest monthly, but this month I’m unable to pay it because I am sick and can only pay attention only to my medical treatment, so I didn’t have time to make the necessary money,” she said.

Some HIV-infected villagers have told RFA that villagers in Roka had taken out bank loans worth U.S. $150 to U.S. $8,000 to invest in farming or to purchase passports for working in Thailand and were concerned about losing their property to the issuing banks.

Battambang’s provincial governor Chan Sophal told RFA earlier this month 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.

Ongoing fight

Cambodia has won praise from the international community for its recent work in fighting HIV/AIDS.

In December, 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  67 percent to 1,300 in 2013 from 3,500 in 2005.

Cambodia’s National AIDS Authority says the rate of HIV infection among people aged 15 to 49 has 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 Prach Chiv for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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