CNRP Calls for Probe of HIV Cases in Kandal

The head of the National Assembly’s health commission has requested that the government further investigate a number of newly discovered HIV cases in a village in Kandal province, which have raised concern over a possible outbreak.

Days after the results of testing conducted by the organization Khemara were made public late last month—10 previously unknown cases were confirmed in Peam village—the Ministry of Health sent officials to conduct follow-up testing but stopped after testing only 279 out of about 1,000 residents and finding only four positive cases.

The ministry, together with UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO), put out a statement two days later, on February 25, which said the results from the day of testing were “not indicative of an HIV outbreak.”

However, Ke Sovannaroth, the opposition lawmaker who chairs the parliamentary commission on public health, said in a letter to Health Minister Mam Bunheng that she remained unconvinced.

In the letter, dated February 25 and endorsed by National Assembly President Heng Samrin on Monday, Ms. Sovannaroth explains that her commission received information about “the spreading of HIV/ AIDS infections to villagers in Peam village, Sambuor Meas commune.”

“So, in accordance with the above information, I request that His Excellency The Minister check and take urgent action,” she says.

Speaking by telephone on Tuesday, Ms. Sovannaroth said the follow-up testing conducted by the Health Ministry had not been sufficient.

“We just saw the report by the WHO that there has been testing of a quarter of people [in Peam village], and the people are still very concerned,” she said. “We can see that this action was not comprehensive.”

Ms. Sovannaroth said the lack of a coherent explanation for why only a fraction of residents were tested had compelled her to request further action.

“Who spread the HIV? It is not clear,” she said. “I do not want them hiding the problem. We do not want to end the problem by hiding information. We want to end the problem with a specific result.”

“We saw it in Battambang and now in Kandal province—which province will be next?” she added. “This is the main concern.”

In late 2014, an outbreak of HIV was discovered in Battambang province’s Roka commune, where about 280 residents eventually tested positive for the virus. The epidemic was blamed on Yem Chrin, 56, a popular village medic who admitted to reusing needles and syringes on patients and was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in the outbreak.

Residents of Peam village were quick to place blame on a local doctor when the positive tests were discovered last month, but the doctor has vigorously denied responsibility.

Health Ministry spokesman Ly Sovann said on Tuesday that the ministry had not yet received Ms. Sovannaroth’s letter but explained that officials were not worried about the situation in Peam village.

“The HIV in Peam is a normal thing. It is not like in Roka commune,” he said. “It is not related to injections. The source of infection is normal, like sex.”

Mr. Sovann said the cases in Peam village were not new but had simply gone undetected until Khemara offered free testing to residents on February 13 to mark International Condom Day.

“I want to clarify that nowadays there are some people who are living with AIDS or HIV and do not know it themselves,” he said.

Marie-Odile Emond, country coordinator for UNAIDS, said the 279 people tested on February 22 comprised a large enough sample to determine that there was not an outbreak of HIV in the village.

“Among those people, very few infections were found. It was within the range of the rate in the rest of the country,” she said. (The average prevalence of HIV in Cambodia is 0.6 percent of the population, according to the latest government figures.)

Ms. Emond said analysis of the positive cases was being carried out in line with standard procedures that ensure proper care, but the results were unlikely to be made public in order to protect the privacy of patients.

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)

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