kandal province – Van Channeang bawled in her mother’s arms Wednesday outside the Mondul Mith Chuoy Mith health clinic in Takhmau town. Despite being swaddled in a beach towel and wearing a tasseled knit cap, the 2-month-old still shivered.
Her mother, Vit Chanthoeun, shook too.
On Monday, World AIDS Day, the 28-year-old mother of three had a blood test.
The next day, doctors told her she was HIV-positive.
On Wednesday, Vit Chanthoeun and her husband journeyed to the clinic once again on a pearl-pink bicycle so that she could start her first round of potentially life-extending medications.
Three plastic packets of pills were the result: Red. White. Yellow.
“I am already poor, and to get this kind of disease—this is suffering,” she said, weighing the pills in her right hand while rocking her baby with the other.
Her infant daughter hasn’t been tested for HIV/AIDS yet, Vitchanth Oeun said.
Since finding out she was infected with HIV, Vit Chanthoeun has stopped breast-feeding her newborn because she is afraid the baby will contract the disease through her breast milk. Instead, little Van Channeang is being fed with a watery mixture of rice and sugar water.
“I don’t know what to do. This kind of food seems to be making the baby get a fever,” Vit Chanthoeun said.
“I don’t feel afraid for myself. Many people have this problem,” she continued, her voice trembling. “But I feel pity for my children.”
Many others like Vit Chanthoeun are coping with HIV and AIDS in Cambodia.
On Wednesday, she was one of 125 patients seen at the Mondul Mith Chuoy Mith health clinic inside the Takhmau Referral Hospital, data provided by the hospital shows.
The clinic is currently treating 3,221 adults with opportunistic infection medications, and another 1,712 adults with antiretroviral treatment, more commonly known as ART.
There are also 363 children treated at the center.
Nationally, there are 29,356 patients who receive ART drugs from 50 distribution sites, according to second-quarter data from the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD.
As one of the largest OI/ART medication distribution sites in the country, patients at Mondul Mith Chuoy Mith travel long distances seeking treatment for HIV and AIDS, said Say Penh, who has worked at the hospital since 1979 and in the clinic since it opened in 2002.
Some patients come from as far as Koh Kong province because they want to “hide the face of their disease,” he said.
Despite the stigma attached to the disease, Cambodia has garnered a global reputation as a success story by lessening its HIV/ AIDS rate.
The most recent National AIDS Authority numbers available shows that Cambodia’s HIV prevalence rate has dropped from an estimated 123,100 infected people—2 percent of the adult population—during the epidemic’s peak in 1998, down to 65,100 people—or less than 0.9 percent of that population—in 2006.
Even so, life isn’t easy for those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
Sim Chanthou, 34, comes to the clinic once a month to pick up her medications, which she takes twice a day. Her 7-year-old daughter takes the medication, too, but hasn’t fully learned the realities of her condition.
“I am waiting for the right time [to tell her] for when she is mature enough to understand,” Sim Chanthou said. “I will explain that she has the same disease that killed her father, and explain to her not to worry about it because many people share our struggle.”