Cambodian Parliament Panel to Summon Health Minister Over HIV Infections

cambodia-ke-sovannaroth-dec-2014.jpg Ke Sovannaroth (center, green shirt) and other officials meet with infected villagers during a visit to Battambang province, Dec. 20, 2014.

A parliamentary commission will summon Cambodia’s health minister for questioning over an apparent mass HIV infection in Battambang province, the panel’s lead lawmaker said Monday, as the number of villagers who tested positive for the virus passed 190.

Ke Sovannaroth, who heads the National Assembly (parliament) Commission on Health Care, said Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng must “clarify” the investigation into the infection in Battambang’s Sangke district, which authorities say was caused by an unlicensed health worker treating villagers with reused needles.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker cited local officials as saying 190 people had been confirmed positive for HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—out of around 1,600 people tested since an elderly man in the district’s Roka commune was found to be infected in late November.

“So far there are 190 infected—some families of four have three members infected, while in some families of five, four have the virus,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“Many of the sole providers of these families are infected, and we must provide a budget package to assist them.”

Ke Sovannaroth said the blood samples of those believed infected had been sent to specialists in Japan and the U.S. for further testing, but called on the government to launch a support program for affected families.

“We must act on the blood test results and undertake measures to encourage those patients emotionally,” she said, adding that Mam Bun Heng would be summoned to the National Assembly in two or three weeks after tests were confirmed by the teams abroad.

Mam Bun Heng couldn’t be reached for comment about the ongoing investigation into the apparent mass infection.

The Phnom Penh Post quoted Battambang Provincial Health Department Director Reung Bunreth as saying that the number of “new infections” in Roka was not as high as 190, adding that both “new and old cases” total 197.

But the Cambodia Daily reported that the number of positive tests at the commune since November had reached 201 by Monday, citing deputy commune chief Soeum Chhom, though he said “the Ministry [of Health] does not allow the release of this statistic.”

He added that about 160 cases had been confirmed at the provincial referral hospital as of Wednesday last week, while the roughly 40 new cases have not yet been double-checked.

No deaths have been reported in the village in connection with the infections, but authorities have charged Yem Chhrem, an unlicensed medical practitioner in the commune, with murder after allegedly confessing to reusing needles on patients.

Yem Chhrem is being held in a provincial prison pending trial and faces life imprisonment if convicted.

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


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