HIV-Afflicted Family’s Livelihood in Question After Mass Infection in Cambodia

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.

Members of one of the families most affected by the spread of HIV in a remote village in western Cambodia’s Battambang province—with 16 of 50 in the extended family infected—have been unable to work their farmland and are at risk of losing their livelihood, according to the group’s matriarch.

Last week, health officials announced that the number of villagers in Sangke district confirmed positive with HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—had risen to 238, since an elderly man in the district’s Roka commune was found to be infected in late November.

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.

The 78-year-old matriarch of an extended farming family of 50 in Roka told RFA’s Khmer Service that she and 15 of her children and grandchildren had tested positive with HIV after receiving typhoid and dengue fever vaccinations, as well as intravenous treatment from Yem Chhrem.

“I have children, a grandchild, and children-in-law who were infected, including a five-month-old and a 15-year-old,” said the woman who, along with her other family members, declined to be identified for fear of being stigmatized and discriminated against.

“My child was injected [several] times. When we had our blood test, [health workers] found that we were infected with HIV,” she said, adding that her daughter had recently given birth to an infected baby after receiving treatment from Yem Chhrem.

She said none of her family members had sexual intercourse with anyone outside of their marriages and was convinced the infections were related to the injections they received from the medical worker, though only one teenage boy in the family reported seeing him use unsealed syringes.

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

“Since I learned that I am infected, I have only been trying to live, but when I take the antiretroviral pills I feel dizzy and I don't know what is right or wrong,” the woman’s son-in-law said.

“I am very saddened. I don't know what will happen with my future. My children cry because we don't know when I will die.”

The son-in-law said that as poor farmers, his family members rely on growing rice, but had been forced to abandon their farmland because they were too sick to tend it.

The woman’s daughter told RFA that her family had been shunned by the other healthy residents of Roka because of their sickness and could no longer make a living selling produce and other farmed goods.

“Before, they were so friendly, but since they realized we were infected, the other villagers have tried to avoid talking to us,” the daughter said.

“After [health workers] explained they can’t become infected from simply talking to us, they interact with our family, but they still view us as outcasts and won’t buy food from us.”

Medical treatment

Family members said nine of the infected 16 are currently taking antiretroviral drugs, which they receive at no cost from the government through local health centers, and the youngest infected child had been admitted for treatment at a provincial hospital.

The son-in-law said he was now resigned to a life of constant treatment and vigilance.

“The doctors have told me I must take pills for the rest of my life—when I run out, they said I must immediately return to get more,” he said, adding he was unsure of how he would be able to provide for his family while suffering from HIV.

Roka deputy commune chief Soeum Chhom told RFA that many infected residents were facing complications from their sickness which were affecting their livelihoods.

“Those who are infected—their health is deteriorating,” he said.

“They are stressed out and they are unable to make any money.”

Earlier this month, Soeum Chhom had said officials would consider the concerns of those infected about repaying loans of up to U.S. $8,000 they had borrowed from microfinance institutions for farming or purchasing passports to work in Thailand.

In December, Ke Sovannaroth, who heads the National Assembly (parliament) Commission on Health Care, noted that many of the sole providers of families in Roka had tested positive for HIV in the mass infection and called for the government to provide “a budget package” to assist them.

Ongoing fight

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

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